Here is my experience when I want to watch a movie using a streaming service: I Google the name of the movie followed by the word “streaming.” Sometimes, the movie is available on one of the platforms I subscribe to and I watch it immediately, which is great. But more often than not it isn’t and I do not watch the movie. Still, I am in the mood to watch a movie, so I open up the streaming services I subscribe to and scroll and scroll because their recommendation algorithms are bafflingly inept, constantly surfacing movies it knows I have already watched because I have rated them and should know I won’t watch again because I gave them one star. Sometimes I find something I want to watch but most of the time I just scroll until I get tired of scrolling and do not watch any movie.
Fortunately, I do not do this very often anymore, because I subscribe to Netflix DVDs, which is the disc-by-mail service the company has offered for more than 20 years and that some people are regularly surprised to learn still exists. Here is my experience with Netflix DVDs: I type in the name of the movie I want to watch when I first hear of it or have it recommended to me. Most of the time, the service has it, but unfortunately not as often as it used to. Even if it doesn't have the physical disc available to rent or the movie hasn’t been released yet, the movie is listed in its database. I can save it to a running queue of all the movies I want to watch. Netflix will send me one DVD or Blu Ray at a time for $5 per month less than it costs to subscribe to its streaming service even though it has more movies available by disc. When I am in the mood to watch a movie, I will watch the movie and send the disc back. Then in two or three days, depending on the USPS’s efficiency, I will receive a new movie I also know for sure I want to watch because I have picked it out myself.
The conventional belief of the last several decades of technological progress is that the first experience is better than the second because it is instant. Who doesn’t want a library of thousands of movies delivered instantly with the click of a button? But it turns out the real world is more complicated, and millions of people still prefer the latter, older system of having physical media delivered to them by the postal service.
This is not because Netflix DVD is a perfect system or an infinite library. It’s because the streaming process is designed around a company choosing for me which movies I want to watch and delivering that movie instantly. It is a technological achievement that nevertheless delivers an inferior product to the old way. The streaming wars have been a huge, expensive step backwards.
Almost 15 years ago, Netflix first offered subscribers the option to stream movies and TV shows directly over the internet. At the time it was exciting and a free extra for all customers with sufficient internet connections. But it only offered around 1,000 movies to stream versus a DVD library of 70,000 at the time. That DVD library topped 100,000 a few years later, a treasure I don’t think the millions of us who used it at the time fully appreciated. The perception is Netflix has a much larger streaming library now than it did 15 years ago. And it does. But it’s only about four times larger for U.S. viewers now than it was then. I couldn’t find exact numbers on Netflix’s current DVD library, but the general consensus among industry experts is that it has shrunk by a lot, but is still certainly bigger than the streaming library.
Over the years, I have found myself switching back and forth between these two ways of watching movies. They are, of course, not mutually exclusive; one can stream to their heart’s desire for an immediate fix while maintaining a Netflix DVD queue. But when I only stream, I find myself longing for Netflix’s DVD service. And when I use the DVD service, I no longer care about streaming, because I pretty much always have a movie to watch on hand that I actually want to watch.
The fundamental difference between Netflix DVDs and streaming is about who is choosing the movies. In streaming services, the company is playing a massive role in choosing the movies you watch. The company is in many cases buying intellectual property and producing its own content based in part on the types of movies its customers have watched in the past. The company is buying existing libraries it can license. And the company is designing the algorithm to surface the content it wants to surface, even if it keeps telling me to watch the same movies over and over again that I either don’t want to watch or have already seen, often burying films I actually do want to watch in impossibly dense menus and cumbersome scrolling functions. The various streaming companies do this because they do not actually have that many movies available to stream, it would be too expensive to have a lot more of them, so they nudge us to watch the same couple hundred movies, tv shows, and original content over and over again.
But it’s not just about the absolute number of films available. It is also about the experience. When Netflix serves me up a platter of a few dozen movies to scroll between, choosing one feels more like settling than selecting. I guess this looks fine, I say to myself over and over. It used to be so much better. When I get a DVD in the mail, it still is.