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Why streaming will never live up to home video

The video store era had problems, but it allowed for greater inventory and a sense of personal discovery.

For a long time, Battlestar Galactica was available on streaming. Then, suddenly, it wasn't.
For a long time, Battlestar Galactica was available on streaming. Then, suddenly, it wasn't.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The streaming revolution isn't just here; it's taken over. Ratings for live TV have drifted toward the perilous — on both broadcast TV and cable. Streaming shows like Orange Is the New Black and Transparent have won major Emmy awards. And Netflix is bankrolling big movies from major filmmakers, including Cary Fukunaga (whose Beasts of No Nation is currently streaming on the service) and Korean genius Bong Joon-ho (who received $50 million from Netflix to make a monster movie).

As someone who has a couch and a Roku, the rise of streaming has mostly been a great thing. I can watch just about whatever I want, whenever I want. If I fall a couple of weeks behind on a favorite show, it's easy enough to get caught up, and if I missed a movie in the multiplex, it's usually available just a few months later — and relatively inexpensively, too. We're closer with every year to the dream of everything being available at the touch of a button.

Yet I find myself thinking, all the same, that something has been lost between then and now, the world that was and the world that is. Streaming is great — but it also has some huge problems.

1) Inventory is ... spotty

How many times have you wanted to watch something that's widely available on video, only to realize it's not on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, or anywhere else? Or that it is available, but only on some service you don't subscribe to or have never even heard of.

There were plenty of problems with the heyday of the video store, starting with the fact that VHS cassettes were generally a terrible way to watch movies (the vast majority of TV shows weren't even available). But it was usually much easier to get ahold of movies you were interested in, thanks to your local video store or library.

That only got better with the rise of DVD in the early 2000s — and the extensive catalog offerings from the mail-order company Netflix. Yeah, you can still subscribe to Netflix's DVDs-by-mail service, but these days it's the company's lowest priority, as Netflix is less interested in filling the gaps in its catalog than it once was.

Streaming services increasingly are curatorial in nature — picking and choosing the programming they think might appeal to their audience. Since they have algorithms to help them, they're right more often than not, but what happens when you stumble upon a mention of a movie you've never heard of and decide you have to see it immediately? That's when a video store used to come in handy; streaming services often don't.

Plus, there's little certainty of how much programming will be on offer. Some TV shows become available on Netflix shortly after they air on a broadcast or cable network; some take months. Some TV shows have whole seasons available on Hulu; others have only a couple of episodes. Which ties into my next point...

2) Availability seems to have no rhyme or reason to it

The cast of The O.C.
Finally, you can watch The OC! On... The CW Seed?
Warner Brothers

A colleague pointed out to me that the hugely popular '00s teen soap The OC is finally available on streaming — it's just on the little-used CW Seed, which I'm willing to bet you've only just found out because I told you about it. (I follow this stuff for a living and had heard of CW Seed maybe two or three times prior to that mention.)

Why is it on The Seed, rather than Netflix or Hulu? Well, because The O.C. is a Warner Brothers property, so it doesn't have a natural streaming "home," in the way a Fox show would gravitate to Hulu or a Disney movie will gravitate to Netflix beginning next year, thanks to a new deal between the companies. And because WB owns a stake in The CW, it can use a popular show to try to make you aware of the network's streaming service.

Programs appear and disappear from these services seemingly at random, and even if you follow the complicated deals that drive streaming availability, you might find yourself taken by surprise when, say, Doctor Who suddenly leaves Netflix (as it almost did in January). Or think of Battlestar Galactica, which was available on Netflix for ages — then suddenly wasn't.

As streaming becomes the default method of TV and movie consumption for most Americans, studios are realizing just how much money there is to be made from selling their most popular projects to various outlets.

That's turned acquisitions into a kind of arms race — and also explains why they're all hurtling headlong into producing their own content, even when it results in losses in the tens of millions, as it did for Yahoo Screen.

3) Yeah, you can find anything — if you're willing to pay extra

Of course, you really can find anything, if you're willing to pay for it. Digital download services like Amazon Prime, Google Play, and iTunes will charge you a one-time fee to either purchase or rent individual films or TV episodes. If you've purchased them, then you own them forever.

But (and I'll deal with how this adds up in a second) the chief appeal of streaming services is that you pay your monthly fee to have access to a certain amount of content. Thus, it's a little frustrating to have to jump extra hurdles to get some of the stuff you actually want to watch.

This isn't necessarily a problem if you're happy watching whatever's available and simply letting the algorithm take you away. But there's charm in following little rabbit holes through film and TV history — and that experience is hard to replicate in the world of streaming services.

4) Streaming is slowly but surely eroding film and TV history

2nd Annual TV Land Awards - Show
Some of The Mary Tyler Moore Show is available on Hulu — but nowhere near all of it.
Getty Images

The stuff that commands the highest premium on streaming services is, necessarily, the stuff that's airing right now or that has come out in the past decade or so. There's nothing wrong with this, necessarily; there are a lot of great TV shows and movies out there to get caught up on.

But one of the wonderful things about the video store era was how easy it was to hop from the best of right now to the best of 25 or even 50 years ago. Simply going to a video store and browsing the classics section or the foreign section was like taking a crash course in film history, one that introduced lots of new titles to either rent or research.

It's not that this is impossible in the streaming era, but the whole experience is more distant, less tactile. The tour, so to speak, is no longer self-guided. Granted, the era that produced the video store saw an unprecedented rise in people having access to the classics of the past, but theoretically, streaming should offer even greater access, and it simply hasn't. There's just enough value in those old catalog titles to make them too expensive to buy in bulk.

5) There's no real guarantee that streaming is the status quo — and costs are starting to stack up

It's early in the history of streaming. We've gone from having one service to more than a dozen, and even if many of them are cheap, fly-by-night operations that will go out of business eventually, we're probably headed toward a world where you'll need to subscribe to five or six of them to get the kind of access to content you might want.

For example: CBS owns all the rights to Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. Currently it sells both series to several streaming services, including the three major players (Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon). But what happens when it wants to drive more people toward its nascent All Access service? Will it perhaps follow the lead of its upcoming Star Trek series and make them solely available there? Or how about when Fox (which has the closest ties to Hulu of any of the major entertainment corporations) wants to find an exclusive home for The X-Files?

And that's to say nothing of the fact that other corporations with massive content libraries might decide to start up their own services. So far, Disney has signed a deal with Netflix while Warner Brothers continues to play the field, but who's to say they don't start up their own streaming outfits, to add even more cash to their coffers? The current streaming climate is enormously similar to the cable boom of the '90s, when every corporation wanted to start its own networks. And why wouldn't they want to?

All of these reasons have one big thing in common: the loss of untempered discovery

Blockbuster To Close All Its Remaining Stores
Probably we don't want Blockbuster back. But the streaming rise has also taken out great indie video stores and worthwhile chains.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Not all of these problems have to remain issues forever — but the very structure of the entertainment industry suggests at least some of them will.

The end of the home video era and the rise of the streaming era has been good in many ways, but it's also led to a world where corporations much more closely control their properties. The old world was one where the impetus for discovery was on you, the consumer, where a budding film geek could do deep dives to her heart's content. This new world is one where technology holds your hand and walks you through item after item after item.

Your local video store could purchase a rental copy of a film — usually at a substantial markup — and then rent it out as many times as it would last. It's impossible for Netflix and its competitors to abide by that agreement when it comes to streaming, because they've effectively become cable syndicators of other content. The balance of power has shifted from consumers to corporate behemoths, even more so than ever before.

The dream has always been to have everything available on one service, for which you could pay a reasonable subscription fee. But because of how the entertainment industry is structured, that seems less and less likely with every year.

Thus, figuring out what is and isn't available on various streaming services is less about searching and more about following elaborate business transactions. And that's tricky even for those of us who cover these things. It's not hard to imagine a future where you're subscribed to half a dozen streaming services and paying just as much as you might for cable right now — and you still don't have access to everything you want.

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