This is my eleventh year as a Netflix subscriber. For more than ten of those years, I was probably their favorite customer: I paid an average of ten bucks a month and rented an average of 15 movies a year. In a good year, we probably had 25 movies sent to our house. In the immediate years after our son was born, we often held onto each title for about four months at a time.
I had a first generation Toshiba DVD player for the first six years or so, which I kept using much longer than I should have simply because I had paid $400 dollars for it in 1999. It couldn’t play homemade DVD-R’s, and a lot of special feature disks wouldn’t launch either. Eventually, we upgraded to an HDMI upconverting model, but our viewing habits didn’t change very much. Movies would arrive in the mail and stick around for three to four weeks before we’d send them back. I’d move a title up in my queue if I was excited to see it, but by the time it reached the top, the same movie would already be playing on HBO, in HD, and there would be no point in watching it in its inferior DVD format. There are movies in my queue that have been there for seven years, perhaps longer.
Then, a few months ago, something changed. It occurred to me that Netflix may not really be a rental service anymore. Instead, it has evolved into a network unto itself, and I decided that I was finally going to see what all the fuss was about. Over the years, I had noticed “Play” buttons appearing next to some titles in my queue, but had never been tempted to click on them. I had always assumed that hitting “play” meant streaming a movie to my computer, which is something I was never anxious to try. I hate my office chair. Actually, I pretty much hate my office. Not to mention, I’m a video editor for about 50% of my working life, and I watch enough video on my computer screen as it is.
But Netflix is everywhere today. It’s available through Tivo, on a Playstation, an XBox, on a dedicated Roku player, on any number of Windows Media Center configurations, and on countless Blu-Ray players. Any one of these systems can plug into my living room HD set and stream thousands of available titles.
I eventually settled on a Blu-Ray player, the Samsung BD-C6500, for a couple of reasons. In addition to Netflix, it can also access Blockbuster and Vudu. It has a wireless wifi connection — perfect for a living room system without an ethernet connection — and, almost as an afterthought, it happens to play Blu-ray disks. At the same time that I began organizing my Instant Queue, I also signed up for Blu-ray rentals. The next thing I knew, every single new release in our queue switched over from DVD format to Blu-ray. Not bad for an additional $1.50 a month.
And now Netflix is available on an iPad. Now, I’m not intending on actually buying an iPad (not yet, anyway), but just think about what this means for a moment. You can now watch a streaming title anywhere you can get a 3G cell phone signal. Anywhere. If you don’t like the titles in your queue, you can browse the “Watch Instantly” section directly within the app, and choose something else. Yes, I know you could already do some of this with a laptop and a wifi signal, but it’s the 3G part that makes this development truly revolutionary.
Netflix is a network, and, dammit, it’s time it started behaving like one. Here’s what I want: I want a Netflix channel available through my Instant Queue, dedicated to highlighting the releases I may not have heard about. I want interviews on that channel with filmmakers who have signed distribution deals with Netflix. I want to know some of the upcoming Watch Instantly releases to look out for. I want movie clubs integrated into the Netflix site, working the same way as a book club: you sign up to watch The Hidden Fortress, for instance, and then you chat about it with a hundred other people who are also participating in the club.
I also want Netflix to tweak how they are recommending titles. I like their viewing suggestions quite a bit, and oftentimes find obscure titles through the suggestion window, but it’s time this feature evolved. Think like a network. What might I be in the mood for on a Monday night? Well, I could use a good laugh. On Friday nights I love watching things blow up. Saturday nights could be reserved for chick flicks, Sundays for dramas. Maybe I want to watch some old Arrested Development episodes during the week, or a really depressing documentary. When I access my queue through my Blu-Ray player, don’t just show me the movies I’ve already put in there — that’s the place where I could really use your suggestions. And how about giving me access to a movie’s special features through my Instant Queue as well?
You are a network, customized to the viewing habits of my wife and me in our living room, yet also connected to a greater, ever expanding universe of plugged-in audiences who are discovering that they are just as likely to stream something on Netflix through their TV sets as they are to channel-surf on their cable box.
I’d also like to address the new 28-day delay policy on new releases from Warners, Universal, and Fox. First let me say this: people complaining about this policy are clearly not longtime Netflix customers. Because as far as I can tell Netflix customers have never cared about release dates. Even if you did care when a movie was being released on disk, it would be nearly impossible to time it so that the movie would arrive in your mailbox near the release date. In general, the movie that gets sent to you is determined by how quickly you watched your last movie, not by how badly you want to see the next one. And that’s just fine with me. The more I think about this 28-day window policy, the more I like it. I’ve already got an 80 movie backup up in my DVD (now Blu-ray) queue; if I have to wait an additional month to see The Blind Side, well, so be it.
Netflix has never been the go-to destination for single-view on-demand new release titles. For that, there is Amazon On Demand, Blockbuster, and Vudu, not to mention your local cable company. It’s an intriguing way to watch movies, and in the past my wife and I have rented movies on-demand when we couldn’t agree on anything to watch, but it’s not something we have any intention of doing on a regular basis. Even if I hadn’t seen Avatar in the theater, I wouldn’t need to see it the day it was released on-demand. I just don’t live my life that way. If I absolutely, desperately need to see a film on a particular day, I’ll go to the theater. Otherwise, I’ll see it when I see it.
In the end, Netflix needed to give something up in order to get something in return. And what they received are more “Watch Instantly” titles. Critics of this new policy are just not understanding the significance of adding new titles that can be viewed on a whim any night of the week. The days of simply turning on cable and mindlessly surfing until finding something worth watching are over for me. Last night, for no particular reason other than that I felt like it, I put François Truffaut’s Bed and Board in my queue (one of the lesser known Antoine Doinel comedies) and watched it for the first time in my life. Would I have spontaneously watched this movie if it had been available to me in any other format? If it were playing on IFC, would I have watched it? No. If it had arrived in the mail, would I have watched it? Still no. If a friend had lent me the DVD, would I have watched it? Nope. I watched it on the night I did because I felt like watching it, and because I knew that on a different night I might not have been in the mood. Isn’t that the holy grail of digital content libraries?
Let’s put it another way: does there exist today a better mechanism for watching whatever I happen to be in the mood to watch, whenever I feel like watching it? Sure, I could pay to watch a movie on-demand, but is that really a fair comparison? Netflix “Watch Instantly” titles, for all intents and purposes, are free, just as if you subscribe to HBO you can regard everything on that channel as essentially free. You pay for the privilege of using the service, not for each individual program available through that service.
And once even more titles are available to stream instantly on my Blu-ray player, as is happening now with the recently announced studio deals, then the amount of content available at my fingertips on a nightly basis will be nothing short of extraordinary.