Debates about the relative merits and pitfalls of the rise of streaming services are among the most frustrating cyclical discourses in the world of film and TV critics, entertainment journalists and other people who just like to argue about pop culture. It’s right up there with the annual “pick one film in the Oscar race and arbitrarily designate it the evil one” discourse, the quarterly attempts to cancel Martin Scorsese, and the monthly skirmishes over “letting people enjoy things”. Yet, as with those tangles of bullshit, I am drawn inexorably toward streaming debates like a shrimp to an anglerfish’s luminescent head frond. I just don’t see how you can care deeply about film or television and not care about the material conditions under which they’re produced, distributed and exhibited.
There are lots of interesting ways to think about streaming: whether it offers more creative freedom to artists (kinda), whether it’s more democratic than theatrical distribution (no), whether it’s all just gonna implode one day and thousands of original movies, television series and stand-up specials will just kind of vanish from any legal distribution channels (probably). I’m glad to see more of a sceptical eye turned to immoral business practices in the industry lately, from Disney’s attempts to destroy independent cinemas to talent agencies selling out their clients for their own benefit to the obvious moves towards monopoly by the major media conglomerates. (Not how exploitative record deals are, though. I guess I’ll have to dust that one off sometime.) It’s important these issues are not just highlighted but explored thoroughly, so we don’t end up with situations like the California law ostensibly designed to stop Uber and similar companies misclassifying employees as independent contracts, which has (1) not stopped Uber et al. doing anything and (2) ruined the lives of basically every freelance journalist in the state.
But I also think a robust engagement with streaming requires looking at narrower issues with user experience. I kind of hate talking about topics like this, because you end up using terms like “user experience”. Materialist analysis is a useful and important way to look at art as a function of the economy, but it still makes my skin crawl to hear works of art described as “products” or, worse still, “properties”. I would rather never have to think about the minutiae of how movies and TV shows are presented to me, but since they are both literally and figuratively embedded in the mediums they’re distributed in, it must be done. Especially because there’s an issue in the debate over streaming vs physical home media that I’ve never seen anyone else really articulate.
DVDs don’t buffer.
I’m not a snob about video quality. Obviously, I’d rather a clearer image over a blurrier one, but I’ll watch whatever I can get my hands on in the best format I can access. I watched This Morning with Richard Not Judy on YouTube in worse resolution than I saw out my eyes before I got glasses. I can barely stay tuned in when people talk to me about 4K TV and I’ve never bought a Blu-ray. I don’t at all understand the fetish for ever sharper, clearer and more “realistic” video, as if all that movies can or should aspire to is a facsimile of real life. I mean, even that’s kind of an outdated criticism because the extremes of video definition now capture the world in a much higher resolution than the human eye. I recently saw someone argue 4K high-frame-rate video was inherently better because it got rid of motion blur, even though motion blur is a feature of human sight and our eyes aren’t really made to see without it. I don’t get it at all.
Even so, there’s little that makes my heart sink more than when I sit down to watch a film on Netflix and there’s some beautiful night-time cinematography with deep blues and rich blacks, shadow and light panted so delicately across the characters’ faces, and the video quality drops. Maybe it’s windy or raining or I just live in a rural area with spotty coverage (that’s the one), but now the lovely dusky hues are huge overlapping blocks of colour, I can see pixels around the edge of people and objects, and there’s more motion in the image because you can see these big pixelated blocks shifting shape and colour, almost at a delay. And that’s if you’re using a video platform that adjusts the resolution when bandwidth drops. Some don’t, and don’t let you do it manually either, so then you’re just left staring at whatever looping symbol they’ve chosen to represent “we are currently failing to provide you with a service, please don’t think too much about why”.
Well, I did think about it too much, and my first thought was that I’ve never had this problem with DVDs. I mean, they can get damaged, obviously. I’ve worn down a couple through excessive repeat viewings myself. But if I buy a DVD, it doesn’t matter where I live or what the weather is like or any of the other dozens of factors that can presumably affect the strength of a wi-fi signal. Provided my DVD isn’t broken, and I have a device that can play and display it, I can watch the movie from start to finish at a consistent visual quality. I don’t need to decide whether to pause it and let it buffer so it doesn’t get all blocky or just power through the decline in resolution to avoid breaking the spell you fall under when you lose yourself in someone else’s mind for a couple of hours. (I mean, the spell is already broken a bit by the thought, but what if you pause and get distracted by something on your phone and never get back to it? I did that with Barry Lyndon and now it’s like three years later.) This is all presuming, of course, that you can afford Internet access at all. But I’ve read a lot of articles on the merits of streaming vs DVDs and while all of them make at least a passing mention of the fact not everyone can afford Internet access, there’s not a lot discussion of the in-between people, like me, who can afford Internet access, just not good Internet access.
I appreciate all the arguments against DVDs. I don’t have the expertise to adjudicate whether DVDs or streaming are worse for the environment, but it seems intuitively likely DVDs at least produce a lot more waste. I’m a walking example of the space-saving argument, with enough DVDs in my room that I could use them as a bedframe in a pinch. But, in a world where sums of money too big for an ordinary person to imagine are made by reducing every single thing in the world into a digital form that can be copied and altered and deleted at will, there is something very comforting about my DVDs. When I open my Texas Chain Saw Massacre DVD in five years, it will still be there, exactly as it is today. No one will have fucked up the aspect ratio. The chainsaw will not be digitally replaced by a very long hairdryer. It will not have disappeared from my library because I didn’t pay rent to a streaming service or the streaming service stopped paying rent to the rights holder.
One way or another, the entertainment industry is pivoting hard to a rentier model of profit, trying to wring money not from selling us anything concrete, but selling us access to digital files that they can rescind at whim. Some parts of the industry are rushing towards different bad outcomes from others, but everyone is racing to the bottom and it can be useful to look at one part to see where another might go. For example, the increasing fragmentation of film and TV streaming into bespoke services for each major IP-holder is foretelling similar shifts in the video game industry, with game studios launching their own cloud gaming services with exclusive content. When I look at the video game industry to see what shifts it might foretell in film and TV, there’s a lot to worry about. Video games have a horrible reputation for titles disappearing arbitrarily from Steam and other distribution platforms based on ludicrous background rights nonsense, or maybe nothing at all. Stadia, the cloud gaming service recently launched by Google, will stream in 1080p video for free users and 4K for paid users. The idea of “owning” a video game is rapidly eroding as at-will access to digital copies becomes the norm for game distribution.
You can’t map these things one-to-one, obviously. Maybe some of the more outrageous excesses of video game companies just wouldn’t fly in an industry with a larger, broader, more diverse customer base and a more established, mainstream and prestigious press built around it. Maybe breakthroughs in networking technology will be used to give everyone high-quality Internet access and not just line the pockets of service providers. Maybe tomorrow will actually be better than today.
But, just in case, I’m going to keep hoarding DVDs. When the apocalypse comes and I have just enough battery in a portable DVD player for one last film before it’s all over, I want to watch Speed Racer. And I want to know all this wild shit is gonna be in standard definition from start to finish.