Netflix Isn’t as Bad as You Think…But It’s Getting Worse

CA0914 netflixNetflix is doing a rare thing among corporations of its size: It’s producing valuable art with its profits.



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I’ve just finished reading the best book I’ve yet come across about internet and culture, Astra Taylor’s excellent and important The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age. For all of the strong, near-irrefutable arguments it makes, it still falls into one common trap by which I’m consistently amazed: It makes Netflix out to be evil. Though it doesn’t dwell too much on this particular point, in passing, Netflix is lumped into the same category of corrupt internet superpowers such as Amazon and Google. Though it’s true that Netflix is guilty of a lot of the problems Taylor presents in The People’s Platform (a big thrust of her argument is that, for all of the so-called democratized media format of the internet, people are actually consuming media through fewer and fewer outlets, with Netflix being one of the few; it’s hard to dispute this point), on the whole, it’s more of a friendly giant—at least for now.

For many years now I’ve found myself in the role of the Netflix apologist. This started becoming apparent during its hemorrhaging of subscribers circa 2011, when it split its streaming and DVD delivery service into two separately charged subscriptions. Everyone I knew, both movie nerds and regular people, lamented this move, given that it effectively doubled the cost of the subscription if you wanted both streaming and disc service. The point that everyone seemed to be overlooking, though, is that the vast majority of people really only used one or the other anyway, and if that was the case for you, the price of subscription actually went down, since you weren’t forced to subscribe to the thing you didn’t use anymore.

That was an argument I had with many, many people at the time, and I still stand by it. And yet, in a lot of ways, 2011 was around Netflix’s peak of usefulness, and it’s gradually been going downhill for movie lovers ever since. And, of course, somewhere along the line, the general populace started flocking back, effectively rewarding Netflix for making its service worse.

At the risk of turning this into a rant-within-a-rant, the one big contribution Netflix brought to movie culture was availability of titles. For most of its history, if a movie was legally released on DVD in the United States and not outright pornography, Netflix would reliably have it. I did the happy dance when they ran Blockbuster out of business, what with the latter’s standardized back catalogue and bullshit “family values” stance. No matter where you lived in America, you could see whatever obscure-assed release you wanted, and even be a glutton for it so long as you had a Netflix account, and Blockbuster deservedly died because of it.

CA0914 peoples-platformBut when Netflix started transitioning to its streaming service, it also started transitioning toward a seeming focus on television instead of movies. Since streaming is well-suited to binge watching and TV is easier to binge on than movies, this makes sense, especially from a business standpoint. However, these days, Netflix doesn’t reliably have everything that comes out on DVD anymore, and it’s getting fewer copies of the obscure titles it does get, so you often end up waiting much longer for them to be in stock. Meanwhile, people like to bitch about how X movie they want to see isn’t on Netflix’s streaming service, but that tends not to be their fault—Netflix is subject to the whims of the studios, which can either charge exorbitant prices for their titles or just not make them available to Netflix at all. At the time of this writing, for example, it was announced that Netflix just paid about $2 million per episode for rights to stream NBC’s The Blacklist, which is just an obscene number. I understand why Netflix did this and can’t fault its logic, but I wish that was money going toward more movies, either on streaming or on disc, than the most recent, watered-down fad TV show that the great unwashed want to see.

Meanwhile, it seems as if viewers are headed in the wrong direction, too. A recent trend I’ve observed, at least among the people I know, is a tendency to go for bigger screens, but with less attention paid to the actual quality of playback on said screen. For example, if you’re going to invest in a 60″ high-def TV, you’re much better off watching blu-rays than you are Netflix’s streaming service, as the big screen only serves to highlight how bad the picture is a lot of the time. It’s true that Netflix streams in HD and often looks quite nice, but it’s hardly consistent in this; any given thing you watch will have bits and pieces, particularly toward the beginning, that display far from high-def, and wind up looking like YouTube videos from 2006. When you watch a blu-ray, the picture is consistent and HD the whole way through, and it never has to buffer, either.

But then, Netflix’s blu-ray service has been going downhill, too. You have to pay a premium to get blu-rays delivered to your house (this is in addition to having the DVD service), but even those obscure films the company does get on DVD don’t always get picked up on blu-ray by Netflix (assuming it is released on blu in addition to DVD), which sometimes leaves you feeling dumb that you spent the couple of extra bucks for the service when you wind up just getting DVDs anyway.

The bottom line is that there is no one clear way to go at this point. Disc service and streaming service have their pros and cons, and no option is as good as disc service was a few years ago. All the same, Netflix is doing a rare thing among corporations of its size: It’s producing valuable art with its profits. And I’m not just talking about buying valuable art; it’s putting up the money to make it. I first noticed the surprising quality of Netflix’s in-house productions with releases such as The Comedians of Comedy and This Filthy World, and of course, they’ve seen their profile raise lately with original shows including House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, or the fourth season of Arrested Development—none of which are flawless, but all of which are better than just about anything else on TV at the moment.

To return to Astra Taylor and her book, I came to read it because I knew Taylor as a documentary filmmaker. I’d seen two of her films, Zizek! and Examined Life—you guessed it, via Netflix’s disc service. Without Netflix, the likelihood that I would have located either is pretty slim. So while I feel like we’re culturally jumping the gun in the implication that Netflix is a giant beast that needs to be slain, if things keep going the way they’re going, I might start agreeing with its detractors in a couple years’ time. For now, though, I still feel like it’s the hero that took down the real beast, Blockbuster, and am happy to reward the service appropriately. Besides, it’s still miles better than competing, comparable modern services, like Hulu Plus, Redbox Instant, and Amazon Prime. The only American movie rental or streaming service I’d put above Netflix is Seattle’s Scarecrow Video, the world’s biggest video rental store that, yes, has more available titles than Netflix, and that is at the moment transitioning to being a nonprofit organization. But until I figure out how to move to Seattle, I’ll have to settle for what I can get from Netflix. | Pete Timmermann

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