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Here’s my experience when I want to watch a movie on a streaming service: I google the movie’s name followed by the word “streaming”. Sometimes the movie is available on one of the platforms I’m subscribed to and I watch it right away, which is great. But most of the time it’s not like that and I don’t watch the film. Still, I’m in the mood to watch a movie, so I open the streaming services I subscribe to and scroll and scroll because their recommendation algorithms are amazingly inept and movies he knows I’ve already seen keep popping up because I rated them and should I know I won’t look at them again because I gave them one star. Sometimes I find something I want to watch, but most of the time I just scroll until I get tired of scrolling and don’t watch a movie.
Thankfully, I don’t do this very often anymore because I subscribe to Netflix DVDs, which is the disc-by-mail service the company has been offering for more than 20 years and regularly surprises some people that it’s still around . Here’s my experience with Netflix DVDs: I type in the name of the movie I want to watch when I first hear about it or when it’s recommended to me. Most of the time the service has them, but sadly not as often as they used to. Even if the physical disc isn’t available for rental or the movie hasn’t been released yet, the movie is listed in its database. I can keep it in a running queue of all the movies I want to watch. Netflix will send me a DVD or Blu-ray for $5 a month, which is less than it costs to subscribe to its streaming service, even though more movies are available on disc. If I feel like watching a movie, I watch the movie and send the disc back. Then in two or three days, depending on the efficiency of the USPS, I get a new film that I know for sure that I want to see because I chose it myself.
The conventional belief of recent decades of technological advancement is that the first experience is better than the second because it is instantaneous. WHO not Want a library of thousands of movies delivered instantly at the touch of a button? But it turns out the real world is more complicated, and millions of people still prefer the latter, older system of having physical media mailed to them.
This is not because Netflix DVD is a perfect system or an infinite library. That’s because the streaming process is designed for a company to choose for me which movies I want to watch and deliver that movie instantly. It is a technological achievement that nonetheless delivers an inferior product to the old way. The streaming wars were a huge, expensive step backwards.
Almost 15 years ago, Netflix first offered its subscribers the ability to stream movies and TV shows directly over the internet. Exciting back then and a free extra for all customers with a sufficient internet connection. But it only offered around 1,000 movies to stream versus a DVD library of 70,000 back then. This DVD library exceeded 100,000 A treasure a few years later that millions of us who used it at the time didn’t quite appreciate, I think. The perception is that Netflix has a much larger streaming library now than it did 15 years ago. And it does. But it is only about four times as big for US viewers today than then. I couldn’t find exact numbers on Netflix’s current DVD library, but the general consensus among industry experts is that it’s shrunk greatly, but is still certainly larger than the streaming library.
Over the years I’ve found myself switching back and forth between these two ways of watching movies. They are of course not mutually exclusive; One can stream to their heart’s content for an instant fix while maintaining a Netflix DVD queue. But if I’m just streaming, I’m craving Netflix’s DVD service. And when I use the DVD service, I don’t care about streaming anymore because I pretty much always have a movie to watch that I actually have want watch.
The fundamental difference between Netflix DVDs and streaming is who chooses the movies. With streaming services, the company plays a big part in choosing the movies you watch. The company, in many cases, acquires intellectual property and produces its own content based in part on the types of movies its customers have viewed in the past. The company buys existing libraries that it can license. And the company designs the algorithm to surface the content it wants to surface, even as it keeps telling me to watch the same movies that I either don’t want to see or that I’ve already seen, and often buried films that I actually wanted to watch in incredibly dense menus and awkward scrolling functions. The various streaming companies do this because they actually don’t have that many movies available to stream, it would be too expensive to have many more of them, so they push us to watch the same few hundred movies, TV shows, and original content again and again once again.
But it’s not just about the absolute number of movies available. It’s also about the experience. When Netflix hands me a platter with a few dozen movies to flip through, picking a movie feels more like a decision than a choice. I think this looks good, I keep telling myself. It used to be so much better. If I get a DVD in the mail, it still is.