Swimming Against the Stream
It was recently announced by the minds that run 21st Century FOX that, going forward from season 15, The Simpsons would no longer be released in digital video disc format. Taken as a specific instance, this is no great loss; the critical consensus is that The Simpsons lost its bite a long time ago and anything from season 16 on would be good only by accident. And if one did happen to enjoy the series’ latter-day run, FOX has already introduced an entire streaming service dedicated to only The Simpsons. However, taken as an overall trend, it only proves how precarious our modern world of digital media — once thought to be the salvation of broadcast media — has truly proved to be.
With the introduction of streaming, physical media was said to be extinct, but in an enlightened way; why clutter your home with shiny silver discs when one could call up any movie or TV show ever made and watch it at any time with nothing but an internet connection? But the reality has been far different. Difficult rights management issues, awkward distribution deals, legal wrangling, and those perennial contenders for the ruination of the culture, corporate greed and laziness, have instead resulted in a situation where the promise of streaming media might be betrayed on a massive scale.
When DVDs were introduced, they seemed like a good idea at the time; they featured heretofore undreamed-of visual and audio quality; a small and manageable physical presence; tons of storage space that could be filled with fan-pleasing extras like alternate takes, audio commentary, cast and crew interviews, and making-of features; and enough room to issue an entire series in only a few discs’ worth of space. As technology advanced, the Blu-Ray format delivered all this as well as an enormous improvement in picture quality. It was an amazing moment for collectors and cinephiles; along with increased media awareness via the internet and ever-growing attempts at better, cleaner restoration of older films, it seemed for a brief while that any film, however obscure or previously unavailable, might be possible to watch at home, and with the advent of Netflix and other home delivery service, at one’s pleasure.
Streaming was supposed to be an improvement on even this model. With most Americans gaining access to high-speed internet and the digital infrastructure being forever improved (though, of course, the service providers did their part to fuck things up, choking off their clients and customers in a display of backward-thinking avarice startling even for big corporations), all of the advantages of digital media would carry forward, but without even the need for physical media on which to store them. Any movie, any time, in any place, on any platform: this is what we were told the future of streaming would provide. So thoroughly have we bought into this model that Netflix, the company that built its considerable fortune on a clever and efficient way of delivering DVDs, has severely curtailed its physical media involvement, and has even talked about shedding this part of its service altogether.
The more one looks, though, the more one sees cracks in the seemingly invincible armor of streaming. Complaints about sound and picture quality can easily be brushed aside; the technology will catch up at some point, of course, and even if it doesn’t, there are those who will always value convenience over quality. No one has yet come up with a way to efficiently (and, more importantly, cheaply) include those value-added extras we once took for granted on DVDs in streaming media, but this, too, is an argument easily dismissed: many viewers didn’t care much about those features in the first place, and those who did — well, the content providers can always repackage them as “documentaries” and find a way to sell them all over again. But there are bigger, uglier problems with the switch to screening, and those point to a future that is alarmingly, unpleasantly like the distant past.
Streaming, you see, cannot possibly be offered in the sheer quantity that physical media offered. Even if we were capable of streaming everything (and that day may come sooner than later), there is no percentage in offering all that is to be offered to an audience that is, for the most part, happy to watch the same things over and over again. Even if there were not dozens of other hurdles to clear — and as we well see, there are — it is simply not profitable enough for streaming services to put out the quantities of material that one once found in a well-stocked video store. Movies, music and shows will be left off because of rights issues, ignorance, lack of attention, or any number of other factors, but no reason is greater for the absence of material from a streaming service than the fact that some middle manager took a look at the numbers and decided there was no percentage in paying someone to digitize it and put it on line.
This is only one of the problems. Exclusive distribution deals are a massive problem: when everything was available on DVD, any retail store or website might buy a particular movie or show and sell it to whoever felt like tracking it down. With streaming, however, distribution tends to be locked into deals with particular services, and a new service appears every day. If what you want to watch is not on Netflix, it might be on Hulu, or on Amazon, or the iTunes store or Google Play or Crackle or Vudu or…well, you get the idea. New services appear every day, some aggregators of vastly different and disparate licensees, others specifically intended to broadcast the offerings of a single network or license-holder. These services are individually affordable, but in aggregate, only someone with vast amounts of disposable income could afford to subscribe to them all. No one could possibly belong to every service that offers material they want to watch, any more than anyone would have the time to buy a diverse selection of records if every music label sold the work of their bands only at stores they themselves operated.
What’s more, plain old business bullshit is still playing its part, from buying up old titles and sitting on them for potential scores down the road to using licensed material as a come-on to tempt in new subscribers and then pulling it as soon as they’re on the hook (the WWE Network is unsurprisingly expert at both of these tactics). There are an increasing number of services that are creating their own programming, but these are not meant to be released in physical form, which not only brings up disturbing questions about what will happen to them if anything happens to those services, but also begs the question of whether or not the actual aesthetics of television programming are beginning to be dictated by the medium in which they exist, and what this bodes for their future.
As more and more intellectual properties come under the ownership of streaming media companies — who have no incentive anymore to release them on physical media — the possibility grows ever higher that they will soon disappear forever. Unless a new distribution model can be arranged, something that is ever more remote in the era of media balkanization, it is quite likely that, in a supreme irony, we will find ourselves in a situation where technology has made it possible for anyone to watch anything at any time, but, thanks to our inability to use that technology intelligently, we have far less viewing choice than we did in the ’80s and ’90s, before it ever existed.