March 30, 2015

Curated a la carte

I puzzle mightily at the extent to which Netflix segregates its streaming and DVD catalogs. If you're a DVD subscriber, there's no way to find out what's in the streaming catalog. Not using the Netflix website, that is.

On Hulu and Crunchyroll, the options are front and center: "Subscribe to watch premium content right now!" Amazon provides all the options available for every title in its catalog. Want to stream it? Want the DVD? Want the book? Click here!

But Netflix treats this information like a state secret.

Back in 2011, Netflix announced that it was splitting itself in two, turning the mail-order and streaming video businesses into separate and distinct corporate entities. In the face of a customer revolt, it quickly reversed that decision.

According to the abandoned plans, the streaming business would retain the name "Netflix." Since that's where they clearly saw things heading, why not entice the Luddites to join them? Why not dangle all those sparkly gems in front of our eyes?

A few possibilities spring to mind:

  • Netflix still intends to separate the businesses: it spent zero dollars in 2014 marketing its (profitable) DVD business;
  • It had already hewn the databases apart and is not about to glue them back together;
  • Netflix would rather its customers not think about what's in its catalog.

I'm serious about the last one. Nobody would design a website this crappy by accident. So "How to get the most out of your Netflix subscription" articles once pointed you to third-party websites, until Netflix killed off that option too.

(Well, not nobody. A common complaint about Barnes & Noble is that for any relatively obscure title, you're better off searching on Amazon even you plan to buy it at B&N.)

As Alex Hern points out, "The paradox of Netflix's transformation from a DVD rental company to a streaming video firm is that as its star has risen, the selection has got worse." Don't look behind the curtain: there's a lot less there there.

Netflix clearly wants to be HBO much more than it wants to be super-Hulu. HBO will give you a programming schedule a month at a time, but won't tell you what's in its backlist. Because that's the way television broadcasters work.

The broadcaster broadcasts and the audience consumes what's being broadcast. HBO subscribers overpay for a handful of original series, recent releases, and access to a backlist that's like randomly punching buttons on a Redbox machine.

Based on cash flow, it's working brilliantly for HBO. (Skinner observed among his lab rats that random rewards elicited the most vociferous responses. See also: slot machines.)

And it seems to be working for Netflix too. Justin Fox at Bloomberg confirms that "Today's Netflix has a lot more in common with existing TV channels, most obviously HBO . . . its success doesn't have much to do with the [back catalog]."

With true on-demand video, there isn't any "programming," because the "programming" is whatever the consumer says it is. That was the promise of streaming. But streaming isn't going to kill television programming, after all.

There's a lot of blather about "curation" in art these days, how much better off we'd be if people with better taste than you and me decided what's best. The "tidal wave of rubbish" being inflicted upon us by self-publishing, for example.

Granted, when bandwidth is finite, curation is called for, even necessary. A museum has only so much wall and floor space. A physical bookstore can stock only so many titles. A theater can book only so many productions in a given year.

Once upon a time, the Internet and the "long tail" were going to obviate that need. But apparently not right away. And not for all people and all markets. Sometimes people really just want to watch "whatever's on."

The reliance on trend-setters and taste-makers is summed up in the Japanese word (working its way into English vernacular) omakase ("I'll leave things up to you"). I admit it: I pay attention to starred items and good reviews too.

But for those of us with (once) fringe taste in (once) fringe media trends, leaving it all up to somebody else meant getting nothing we wanted. Manga and anime first flowed east across the Pacific thanks to IP pirates, not "curators."

Though back in the day, the IP pirates themselves were, by necessity, curators. You could pack only so many VHS tapes into your luggage.

For now, our entertainment options are in a tug-of-war between the a la carte world and the omakase world. Netflix started out as the former and ended up the latter. I suspect we're heading for a "curated a la carte" future.

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# posted by Anonymous Dan
4/01/2015 9:26 AM   
The margins for streaming existing content are dwindling as the content owners are raising their prices and ever more streaming services are competing for them. The margins for selling one's latest branded serial program are excellent. Original content is the future for HBO and Netflix as that is the only way they can control their future. It is also the way to make money as apparently millions of consumers get their kicks watching "avant garde" series programming.
# posted by Blogger Joe
4/05/2015 10:08 PM   
The gaps in Netflix streaming are very strange. The lack of classic TV is, for me, the oddest. They have The Munsters (which holds up pretty well) but not The Addams Family or Bewitched. Then there are the shows which have only one or two seasons, even though the show is on season five or six (or has finished.)

Same with Amazon Prime, which doesn't cover the real hit shows or even some classics.

The kids programming choices seem to be increasing faster than the non-kid offerings, but even there the gaps are weird.

The irony of all the choices is that once you subscribe to every one, your monthly cost gets up there