In 2010 I saw 100 different movies in 100 different theaters. Here are the details.

Monday, September 19, 2011

What's Wrong with Netflix?

When home video was just a fledgling young thing, my family used to drive three hours to Reno, through the desert, uphill both ways, just to rent BetaMax tapes. We'd mail back the tapes when we were done watching them (we invented the movies-by-mail model and I'm expecting royalty checks from Netflix any day now). Fifteen years later, BetaMax was dead, but we could rent VHS tapes from a local video store at a rate of 5 movies for 5 days for $5.00. Good times. Jump ahead another decade, and Blockbuster Video offered unlimited rentals for a $30/month subscription fee. That plan was awesome, but it stressed me out; every minute I delayed in walking down the hill to return my just-watched movie meant my price-per-movie was increasing.

Then along comes Netflix. Suddenly I can select movies from the slothful position of my computer chair; pick them up the next day in my downstairs mailbox; and mail them back from work when I was ready for more. Ordering online meant I could manage queues; it's like telling the grocery store to first send me beans, then tortillas, then salsa, then vegan sour cream; then more beans. In addition to the "fun" queue, I had the addiction queue (TV shows), education queue (documentaries), and I-might-not-leave-the-couch-but-I-know-culture-when-I-see-it queue (classics). It was good to be alive. I'd awake each morning and shout from my window, "I'm happy as hell and I'm going to take it some more!" Depending on how many discs my neighbors and I had coming each day, the USPS would alternate between lining up shoulder-to-shoulder on the street to bucket-brigade the little red envelopes to our doorsteps like a parade of army ants, or, when the volume was unusually high, they'd just airdrop three tons of DVDs from a mile up and hope for the best.

Netflix was also known for their recommendations algorithm. If you liked Toy Story, Netflix would plumb the intricacies of your consciousness to determine that you might enjoy Toy Story 2. They'd even run contests to see who could improve the algorithm. It was a brilliantly complex formula that went something exactly like this: "You liked Quantum of Solace? That's a James Bond movieSean Connery was James Bond oncenobody's renting Zardoz these days You'll love Zardoz!" Pure genius. At one point, I had rated so many movies that Netflix stopped making recommendations for me. But after I invited the algorithm out for a few drinks and apologized for being overly zealous about our relationship, it nows offers me the following rock-solid 31 recommendations (see below). Once I mentally sift out the two that show up twice and the one (The Avengers) that's already in my queue (it takes real insight to predict I'll like something that's already in my queue), I need only look to WordGirl: Tricks and Treats and The Backyardigans to know that Netflix hates me. I give it nearly four thousand discrete points of data, and it gives me The Backyardigans?


But Netflix doesn't just hate me, it hates the United States Postal Service. After single-handedly keeping that archaic institution afloat (delivery-by-mail imploded in the late nineties when the debut of Hotmail meant that we could now receive junk mail electronically), Netflix slaps the USPS in the face by offering streaming. Netflix, that gigolo, has secretly been courting broadband cable as its preferred method of delivery. So, the USPS closed up shop and four people noticed, while consumers everywhere rejoiced that they could now slow down their neighbors' internet speeds by streaming movies all night long. The Golden Age of Home Video had yielded to the Diamond-Crusted-Platinum Age of Never Watching Anything Because I Can't Choose From Everything. It was glorious. Oh, and it was free with existing memberships.

Could such a business model continue indefinitely? Unlimited streaming + DVDs for less than $20/month? You might recall the night that Netflix firebombed every Blockbuster Video that still had the audacity to open each the morning (it didn't make headlines). Or the time Netflix locked Hulu in a closet and said Hulu couldn't come out until it had watched its Zooey Deschanel ad for cotton twelve million times (Hulu was quoted as saying it enjoyed the experience and hoped that Zooey would soon sing about polyester as well). Well, the time has come. Netflix has stomped every ball it can find, except those of its customers.

On July 12, Netflix sent an email to customers notifying us that they would be separating their by-mail service from their streaming service "to better reflect the costs of each." I.e. they are moving toward a streaming-prefferred model, and those of us who enjoy antiquity can pay extra for it. But who cares, right? A friend of mine had already begun chucking DVDs from her collection that were available via streaming. I created a field in my movie database to track which films were available via streaming, such that I could queue it up right from my database. Streaming is here, it's dear; get used to it. Now, if you're one of those crazy conspiracists who believes that national bandwidth is finite and we're headed for a major clogging of the interwebwaves and we can't all stream Netflix, well, you're right, but you're also craaazy, so we'll ignore you for now. Instead, let's focus on selection.

According to Netflix, they have "thousands of movies & TV episodes available to watch instantly", and, via a deal with Starz Play, the Starz titles are "incremental to the continually growing Netflix library available to watch instantly. Starz Play includes approximately 1,000 movies, Original Series, and other entertainment". Thousands? That sounds pretty good to me. Especially if they are adding titles faster than I can watch them. But let's unpack these statements a bit. There is a big difference between thousands of movies, and thousands of TV episodes. If you're a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and you should be), you're in luck, because Netflix has all 144 episodes available for streaming; and when you're done with that, you can waste your time on streaming all 110 episodes of Angel (sorry, Angel fans). Of course, if you actually want to go back and watch the campy Buffy movie, you're in trouble; it can't be streamed. Netflix made the right choice to favor the show over the movie, but it also just burned 254 of its "thousands of movies & TV episodes" to do so. And while Buffy is hogging the server space, some great movies are being left out in the cold. Of my 44 favorite movies (movies I've seen at least four times, and want to see at least once every two years from here on out), only 8 are available for streaming (18%). Who didn't make the cut? Well, Clue, of course, but Clue never gets any love. But also the Star Wars trilogy (Starz Play couldn't get the inside track on that one?), the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Truman Show. If ever a movie cried out to be beamed directly into everyone's household on the basis of its theme alone, it's The Truman Show.

At one point early in the streaming era I did an audit of every movie I had seen that I wanted to see again, of which there are more than 700. Of those, Netflix had 25% available for streaming. That seemed promising, as this was during the infancy of the streaming service. If they already had 25% of my favorite movies, imagine where they'd be in a year's time! But then I revisited the audit a year later. They still had only 25% of these movies available for streaming, and it wasn't the same 25%. At least half of the movies that had been available for streaming were no longer available. I credit this delta to Starz Play, which allows its movies to be streamed, but only for a limited time (so you might put a movie in your queue, only to find it removed a few weeks later when the movie is no longer available). Whereas X-Men has since rolled off the streaming servers, you can still make the world a more depressing place by watching 3000 Miles to Graceland. While once I shouted from my window with glee, now I shout, "What, did we lose a war? That's not America!" So, our first few lessons are that we shouldn't throw out our DVD collections just yet, we shouldn't rely on streaming alone to take the place of video rentals, and we should think of streaming more like On Demand (with its time-sensitive availability) than a digital movie collection.

I received another email from Netflix this morning, purportedly apologizing for the terseness of the July email. Frankly, I didn't find anything wrong with the July email, other than its contribution to the misperception that their streaming service is robust enough to displace the by-mail service. But today's email made my jaw drop. After a few paragraphs to the effect of, "We're sorry . . . yadda yadda . . . we did it because . . . yadda yadda", the CEO slams us with this: "In a few weeks, we will rename our DVD by mail service to 'Qwikster'. We chose the name Qwikster because it refers to quick delivery. [What, quicker than streaming?] We will keep the name 'Netflix' for streaming.... A negative of the renaming and separation is that the Qwikster.com and Netflix.com websites will not be integrated." Boooom! I can't believe my eyes. The company that put corner video stores out of business with its simple red envelopes is going to throw its brand recognition into the trash. Yeah, that's how badass they are; they could call their service Dumpster and still get a million new customers a day.

I always thought it was called Netflix because I rented my movies on the Net, but now I realize that it has to do with speed of delivery, with Net Speed being somewhere between Qwik Speed and Ludicrous Speed. So, okay, the envelopes come with a different name on them, but they're still red. Qwikster is more difficult to spell, but not to say. You'll get two bills instead of one, but they're electronic anyway. For me, the killer is the two websites. You mean to tell me that if I'm going to maintain both services, I need to log into this new website and re-rate 3,726 movies? That one service will have no idea that I just watched and abandoned The Company via the other service, and will continue to recommend it to me? (I mean the Chris O'Donnell spy movie, not the excellent Robert Altman ballet movie.) That to manage my two queues will entail logging into two websites, rather than toggling between two tabs? Am I the only one wiggin' out here? I feel like I'm taking crazy pills!

So, because Netflix and I go way back, I decided to send them a cautionary email, that I, as a single yet incredibly important customer, find this impending division to be on the lesser side of really, really bad. I replied to the CEO's email. And I received an almost immediate reply (that's how important I am). Noreply@netflix.com kindly informed me that I'm an ass for thinking a human being actually checks info@netflix.com, and that if I have something to say, I should do so via their website. So, I tried. Let me tell you, their website is not designed to handle customer service complaints. I can report a damaged DVD and they'll have someone in my living room in ten minutes to load up a new disc and rub my feet. I can report an envelope has gone missing in the mail and they will execute forty-seven blue mail boxes in retribution. But try to tell them they're business is messed up? I can either suck it up, or call a 1-800 number.

Or blog about it to my five readers. Mua ha ha!

1 comment:

  1. Netflix reverses course: http://blog.sfgate.com/techchron/2011/10/10/netflix-hears-consumers-kills-dvd-spin-off/

    And I'm sure it's all because of this blog.

    ReplyDelete