Netflix Could Change Everything, Alright

Arrested Development Wink-Wink

Yesterday I complained about a GigaOM article that had no meat to its “Why Arrested Development on Netflix could change everything” headline. Here’s what I think it was lacking.

Back in February, Fast Company’s Co.Create interviewed Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer.1 He had this to say about the company’s distribution method of dropping an entire season of a series at once:

What’s unique about this initiative is we’re not really wrapped up in having a big opening and a big debut in terms of ratings. It’s not differentially important to me that anyone watches this show at any certain time. People will be discovering this show for the first time over the next several years, the same way they’re discovering Mad Men for the first time on Netflix today. But I want to try to stay out of the business of trying to influence America to do the same thing at the same time, which is a really expensive proposition.

Fair enough. That is unique and more in line with the way people binge on television in 2012. However, in introducing the interview, Co.Create sneaks in this little-discussed detail (emphasis mine):

…As the 15-year-old company gradually phases out its original means of distribution (Lilyhammer and House of Cards will not be available on DVD) it’s going to flex a muscle the other services don’t even have: With years of rentals and ratings, Netflix knows its audience’s taste inside and out and has built credibility at recommending new shows and movies.

The only way to get these original series is through Netflix’s Watch Instantly, not through the company’s disc-by-mail service. It’s still unclear whether or not these shows will ever be available on disc anywhere, or even available for purchase. Which likely means the only way to access them a year, two years, ten years down the line will be to keep paying for Netflix. Think $70 for a Blu-ray season of a series is pricy? Try $8 a month indefinitely.

Netflix appears to be playing a long game here. Tired of being jerked around by studios and networks, Sarandos and CEO Reed Hastings are building up an armory of original content that will help them weather any stormy negotiation. It’s incredibly bold and forward thinking, far ahead of what anyone else is up to.

Now, I don’t know whether Netflix will choose to sell discs for any of their original series. I do know, however, that DVD is a competing format to streaming, and Netflix is in no position to squander their format exclusivity.

The loser in all of this will be the consumer. When you buy a disc, you own it. Sure, movie studios will contest that claim, but at the very least you can put it on your shelf and watch it whenever you want, wherever you are. All you need is a player, a screen and a little bit of power. With streaming, of course, you need a player, a screen, a (decent) Internet connection and, usually, a WiFi router. If we hand over how we consume movies and TV shows to Netflix and tell them to hold onto our content, we will allow them to fundamentally change the home video game.

That may be fine. You may love Netflix. Hell, I do. But what happens when I fall out of love, or when they hike prices again? What happens when the company starts developing films and keeps them exclusive to streaming as well? And what if they fail and fall into obscurity? If released on disc, they could at the very least be preserved by fans and collectors.

I have no doubt that Netflix’s original content initiative will be a huge success, especially with popular buys like Arrested Development. What worries me is that by the time we realize what we are giving up it will be too late. We’ll have crossed the bridge to streaming distribution just in time for Netflix to blow it up.

So yes, the show’s bow next Spring could change everything. I’m just not so sure we should be so blindly revelatory of that fact.

  1. I apoligize but the byline seems to be missing, so I can’t credit the writer. ↩︎