I know it hurts, but we can do better
We all know breakups are hard, but when your S.O starts obsessively tracking your location,and asking you for money when you aren’t where they think you should be, it’s probably time to put an end to things. On February 9, Netflix announced it would be cracking down on password sharing, and I think it’s fair to say that students are one of the hardest hit groups by this move. Many of us have begged for, borrowed, or stolen Netflix accounts from our nearest and dearest relatives—and now we’re being asked to pay up or lose out. Personally? I’m ok with letting go—not just of Netflix, but of all their competitors too. As a concept, streaming has the potential to be the best and most accessible way to view any show or movie that your heart desires, but because the money-hungry executives that run them care more about revenue than about art, it falls short on all fronts.
So consider this my break-up letter to Netflix, and to all of the other streamers their success has spawned while I’m at it (I genuinely don’t have room to list them all). To help them see why they don’t deserve my student loan money, I’ve structured my reasons for dumping them in a way all of these services should understand—a half-baked and uninspired Christmas Carol adaptation.1
The Ghost of Media Past
A major issue streaming services have always had is recency bias—prioritising the most recent television and films, and shunning the old in favour of the new. The problem with this is that just as no man is an island, no story ever truly stands alone. Every story told today is in conversation with the stories that have been told before. It can be fascinating to go back to the films and television shows of yesteryear and spot the things which have been riffed on, reimagined, or simply ripped off by the films and television shows of today.
Our nostalgia driven culture is full of this sort of thing. Stranger Things leans hard on 80s horror like The Thing and Nightmare on Elm Street. The Mandalorian takes cues from westerns like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and samurai flicks like Yojimbo. What’s the common theme between all of these films? None of them are available on a streaming service in New Zealand. Many of them are at least able to rent on iTunes, but do you really want to rent movies when you’re already paying a monthly subscription fee? Worse still, that option doesn’t exist at all for television shows. I could point to dozens of modern shows and films which take notes from old classics like The Twilight Zone and Twin Peaks, but if you want to watch either of those shows in NZ, you’re pretty much out of luck.
Streaming services have the potential to be to film and television what libraries are to books—vast archives that highlight the best and brightest from the history of the medium and make them easily accessible to the general public. Instead, they pour money into obtaining only the newest and most popular titles, leaving older content to gather dust in a studio vault. Stories are not made to be locked away. They are made to be told, shared, and discussed. Streaming services would be a great way to breathe new life into these old films and shows, but they aren’t, and I think that’s a very sad thing.
The Ghost of Media Present
Ok, so streaming services aren’t living up to their potential as a content archive. But at least they give us easy access to what’s coming out today, right?
Unfortunately not. Streaming services have made keeping up with the latest hit shows a nightmare. Because of complicated licensing stuff, overseas content is usually auctioned to the highest bidder and there’s never really any consistency as to what ends up where. The current wave of Star Trek shows is a prime example of this. Star Trek: Discovery premiered on Netflix. Following that Star Trek: Picard and Star Trek: Lower Decks premiered on Amazon Prime. Then, Star Trek: Discovery was abruptly pulled from Netflix three days before the start of its fourth season so that it could debut on Paramount+… a service which doesn’t even exist here in New Zealand. Eventually it made its way to TVNZ+ (almost a month after the fourth season had ended), along with Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. One show, Star Trek: Prodigy, has failed to show up on any streaming service at all. Trying to follow all these shows as they’ve been shuffled around has been the most frustrating television viewing experience I’ve ever had. If streaming services aren’t going to act as a good archive of content, then they could at least try to get the new stuff right, but instead, shows just go wherever the biggest paycheck is, regardless of whether it makes sense for them to be there—or sometimes simply aren’t available anywhere at all.
The Ghost of Media Future
The worst part about all this is that things are probably going to get a lot worse before they get better. Most of these services are actually still operating at a loss, and we should be worried about the nefarious way in which they are starting to cut their costs. In a recent spree of penny-pinching decisions, Warner Bros decided to write off a bunch of their projects.This basically means that they get a tax return from the government, in exchange for locking their content in a vault and never letting anyone see it again. These projects range from nearly-finished (and now forever unreleased) films like Batgirl and Scoob!: Holiday Haunt, to animated series which have already run for years and have passionate fanbases, like Final Space and Infinity Train. Walt Disney once said that: “We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make movies.”2 Now we’re at a point where studios are hiding away movies and shows that thousands of amazingly talented people poured love and care into, because they think it’ll save them a little bit of money in the long run. The future of film and television is looking incredibly bleak.
I already went into how stories are not made to be locked away, but this has the potential to be much, much worse, and we only have to look to history to see why. Back when television was a new medium, programs were seldom repeated, meaning there was no commercial value in storing them after their first broadcast. The result? Programs were routinely destroyed, and countless productions have been lost to history—the most famous example being the many lost episodes of Doctor Who. There’s no guarantee Warner Bros will be kind enough to maintain copies of the projects they’ve pulled—after all, there’s no commercial value in storing something nobody can watch, is there?
Of course, I have yet to address the peg-legged, eyepatched, and magnificently bearded elephant in the room; piracy. I used to be against piracy, because I understood the things I loved took money to make, and that the artists that made it needed to make a living. But we live in an era where mega-corporations have a stranglehold on our entertainment, and the mega-corporations don’t care about art in the same way we do. In response to the pulling of Infinity Train, creator Owen Dennis has encouraged people to pirate the show, saying: “What’s the point in spending years working on [something], if it’s just going to be taken away and shot in the backyard?”3 Film and television has always been a tug of war between creatives and accountants, and right now the creatives are losing.
We’ve been here before. History has taught us what we need to do. We still have audio recordings of every missing Doctor Who episode thanks to bootleg copies made by fans. Final Space and Infinity Train will live on not through streaming services, but through illegal downloads. We can’t trust these companies to preserve their projects, so we have to take matters into our own hands. Next time you see something you really love (assuming Netflix hasn’t already kicked you out of your mum’s account), consider squirrelling away a copy for yourself on your own hard drive. You never know—the way streaming services are going, it might eventually end up being the only way to watch it…
1. Yes, they all have at least one of these. There is an unfathomable number of them out there. Disney+ has four! Netflix made a new one last year!!
2. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/9027526-we-don-t-make-movies-to-make-money-we-make-money (although how sincerely he believed this himself is another question…)