Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Streaming still hit and miss for TV and movies

Someday we won't own movies-- in the "stack next the the TV" sense-- anymore than we did before my family got its first VCR in 1983. We'll watch them on TV, like we did back then, except that we'll do it on demand, which was impossible then.

But we're not there yet. Oh, we talk like we are-- you can watch movies and TV series through Hulu, Joost, and Netflix, all over the net. But there are two major issues.

One of them is the subject of an excellent note at Ars Technica-- namely, that currently, in 2009, content tends to sputter in and out like an old broadcast signal. One week you can watch Grease 2, and the next week, it's gone. This is absurd. There are a million reasons, but none of them in the end make sense to you or me when we just want to watch Michelle Pfeiffer dance on a ladder. Why would it be here, then gone? Who didn't get paid?

The second, bigger, issue is selection. Isn't that counter-intuitive? DVDs, as the Negropontes will tell you, are made of bits, which are expensive. It costs money to produce a DVD of the 1979 Dracula, and it costs less to distribute a digital copy. Admittedly it's not free-- you have to license the movie and you'll also have network costs around the actual digital distribution. But all of that should be cheaper than printing and trucking DVDs.

And yet there's way, way less available for streaming and download than or DVD. I can get a DVD of Werewolf of London, but I can't stream it.

Why is this? I suspect it has to do with the fact that DVDs can be rented as long as they're not broken, so even after I lose my license to make the DVD, I can sell the ones I made. Not so online-- for me to distribute a copy of Horror of Dracula, I need a license that's valid as long as you keep downloading or streaming it from me.

So today, at Netflix, you can watch Bram Stoker's Dracula, but not anything that you'd have a hard time finding in other, theoretically more expensive ways, like Ataud del Vampiro.

It's all backwards-- the net should be the place we go for the billions of bytes we want, not the place to find only the most popular DVD offerings. But look for all of this to change.

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