How Streaming Media Services Affect our Perception of “Owning” Music and Movies

Philip White

Despite the company’s recent price increases, the decision to split its DVD delivery and streaming businesses and the lamentable choice to name the former “Qwikster” (as one friend commented, “It sounds like fast-drying spackling!”), I am an avid Netflix fan. And if the company can increase its still-inadequate library of on-demand content, this miser may eventually ditch my old, 500-pound behemoth of a TV and invest in one with Netflix streaming built in, or maybe just a Roku box. Right now, I occasionally watch a movie on my HTC Flyer tablet, which is a better viewing experience than an iPhone/iPod but still a little rinky dink for my liking.

So why does the ability to get movies without waiting for a DVD to arrive or, heaven forbid, leaving the house to patron the nearest Redbox, appeal? Because it’s quick, convenient, offers a (soon to be) wide choice and there’s a predictable, all-you-can-watch fee instead of an individual charge per disc. And if I sometime think that Amazon’s Instant Video has a better selection, maybe I’ll forsake Netflix.

So that’s the good, but what about the bad or potentially bad? How is the rise of streaming film and TV content affecting studios large and small, and the actors, producers, directors, crew members and others they employ? Were some of the same questions asked when other new technologies were rolled out? The television? The videotape machine?

Certainly, DVD and Blu-Ray sales are down. And movie prices continue to rise, much to my horror. $12 for a ticket? In the middle of Kansas? Really? I also loathe the gimmicky “cinema suites” that offer a crappy buffet and cheap beer if you’re willing to fork over $20 bucks or more per ticket, and possibly the shirt off your back, too. But how much of these price hikes and the luxury concept that seems to be borrowed from major league sports’ premium on suites and boxes is attributable to movie studios, and how much to the theater companies themselves? I admit that I don’t know.

What I do know is that the ability to stream movies and music on demand, on mobile devices as well as at home, is profoundly affecting how we think about owning this content. The point of buying a DVD (I still haven’t succumbed to the allure of Blu-Ray, though after being blown away by watching Saving Private Ryan in this format on my friend’s big screen it has been tempting) used to be that you could watch one of your faves whenever you like. Well, with streaming you can do that, while removing the embuggerance of actually having to get up from the couch, or, in my case, trusty leather recliner.

When I fully embrace streaming, there will be no disc to scratch, misplace or lose to the clutches of the kids. My wife and I will no longer yell at each other for me absent-mindedly putting The Fellowship of the Ring (mine) in the case meant for The Devil Wears Prada (hers). And if a film is bad, there will be no wait while I send the accursed item back to the Netflix warehouse, and then wait for them to send out the next DVD in your queue. Heck, even without switching to video on demand and just using Netflix’s plain ol’ two DVDs at a time plan, I buy less than a quarter of the DVDs I purchased even two years ago. And those I do get or request for a birthday or Christmas present are true favorites, rather than the mediocre films I kinda liked but only watched once a year that I used to purchase or hint at before Netflix. So, for me at least, I’ve almost completely abandoned DVD ownership, without even jumping headlong onto the bandwagon. And I’m not alone. According to Time DVD sales were down by 18.3% in the first six months of 2012, while spending on kiosk and on-demand services was up by 40 to 45%. Movie studios and distributors are doing their best to reverse this trend by ensuring that physical copies are available for rent and purchase a lot sooner than via Redbox, Netflix or Amazon.

The mass adoption of movie streaming is the biggest historical change in the film industry since the

introduction of the VHS-playing VCR to the U.S. in 1977. Once this format had smacked down Sony and its upstart Betamax (what is it with Sony and propriety formats? Anyone remember MiniDisc?), VHS gave people the ability to watch high quality (for that time) productions in their own home, as well as the ability to record live TV. With Netflix and its kind, the focus has shifted again, as it’s now no longer necessary to have a home-based content device, as a tablet or even a smart phone will suffice. We’ve gone from a cinema-based model to home-focused to mobility-focused, which in apt, given the ever-greater ease of international travel and the greater geographical transience within America today.

And what of music? I am not a Pandora user, nor have I logged into Spotify since signing up. I’ve come to prefer Amazon’s MP3 store to iTunes because of lower prices and my love of using the Amazon Cloud Player on my tablet, and usually buy digital instead of CDs, but I still buy as much music as I did a few years ago. Not sure that’s typical though–I know a lot of people, particularly in the UK where Spotify is more established–who listen to music almost exclusively through streaming offerings, whether it be radio or a paid subscription service.

In the U.S., how long will it be before the majority of major labels make 25 percent of revenue through streaming music subscribers to Spotify et al? Is this already diminishing CD and MP3 sales? The concept is similar to the instant video vs. Blu-Ray/DVD debate–a large and soon-to-be unlimited selection at your fingertips against the tangibility and permanent ownership of a physical product. I still find it easier and safer to plonk in a CD while in the car rather than messing around with an iPod, but with voice-controlled media systems becoming more prevalent (the new iPhone, for instance) and the continued success of satellite radio, that may change soon. I was late to the Netflix party, so maybe eventually I will succumb to the charms of music on demand, and stop buying music. I’m determined that vinyl will be the exception–still loving my Technics SL-1700 turntable and the sleeve design and notes on records old and new!

Thoughts? Do you primarily stream music and movies, or still buy individual copies (be they digital or physical)? Are the media changes afoot much greater than those of the 20th century?