Against the Stream

by | Feb 7, 2021 | Writing

Spending the last year stuck at homes would have been much more difficult with the comfort of our televisions. Escaping into the worlds on our screens has been a welcome reprieve from the doom and gloom of Covid-19, and streaming services have no doubt been a crucial part of that.

Disney + couldn’t have picked a better time to launch in the UK; it had a captive audience, desperate to relive classic animation or adventures in a galaxy far, far away. It’s hard to believe it’s been almost twelve months since Joe Exotic first made his mark on the world consciousness, with Tiger King proving to be a genuinely global phenomenon; sweeping across the world faster than any virus. Thanks to streaming, there was no need to wait each week for the next episode, or for the Amazon driver to drop off the DVDs. Every episode and every film was ready to go when you were: instantly accessible, and utterly captivating.

Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney +, YouTube… If there have been any “winners” at all during this pandemic, it’s been those that provide home entertainment. They’ve had our full attention, and – with their quality and quantity of content – often deservedly so.

I fully recognise the convenience and entertainment that streaming services provide. Even accessing them – just a few taps or clicks on your remote or browser – is less cumbersome than picking up and inserting a disc before having to sit through the trailers (although YouTube has certainly become more intrusive with adverts in recent years).

Sadly, it’s not quite as straightforward as that. For all of the many merits, streaming has introduced new issues into media consumption, ranging from subtle annoyances to serious concerns. It is worth acknowledging these.

Disney + is a interesting case study, and its creation can be seen as quite a cynical process. In order to create a platform where all of Disney’s content – including Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and more – content which had previously been licensed to other platforms was removed to ensure exclusivity. Of course, Disney is free to make whatever deals it wishes with regards to licensing it’s content, and why would make your content available elsewhere when exclusivity drives traffic to your own service? Yet this represents one of the first issues for the consumer: films and series you had previously been enjoying can suddenly disappear due to these licensing issues. There is no guarantee that the films on your Watch List will still be there a few weeks from now.

This isn’t so bad if the content is still available elsewhere. Sure, it’s annoying, but a consumer could still track down the DVDs or subscribe to another streaming services – either option at an additional cost – to pick up where they left off. I had been enjoying the full series of Angel when, unexpectedly, Amazon removed it from Prime as I was nearing the final episodes of the last season. It was a pain, but I bit the bullet and paid for them.

It’s far worse, of course, if your content disappears for good. That brings us to the uncertainty hanging over Daredevil and the other Netflix / Marvel collaborations.

Conceived and produced long before Disney +, the Netflx / Marvel shows offer a much darker take on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While the quality varies quite drastically, Daredevil is widely considered to be some of the best superhero television ever made. I personally remain a huge fan of Luke Cage, The Punisher and the first-season of Jessica Jones. In particular, Alfre Woodward in Luke Cage gives one of the best screen villain performances I’ve ever seen: if you haven’t seen her as Mariah Dillard / Stokes yet, I’d encourage you to catch up now… while you still have the chance.

Now that nearly all of the other Marvel properties have been consolidated into Disney +, with new Marvel shows such as WandaVision beginning to appear on the platform, an awkward uncertainty hangs over these legacy shows. Having been produced by Netflix, they are still available but have seen all future series cancelled. It is unlikely that Disney are content to sit on these characters and not use them, nor be content to have a rival platform hosting alternative versions of their IP.

It’s not inconceivable, then, for these shows to effectively disappear. Again, not such a big deal if they show up again on Disney +, but the dark, gritty, and often extremely graphically violent content doesn’t sit well with Disney’s family friendly brand. Given the latter series of these shows (unsurprisingly) haven’t made their way onto DVD or Blu-Ray in the streaming age, there is a real concern over the future availability. It’s an awkward situation, and for now we can only speculate.

The existence of multiple services also exposes an awkward truth: streaming services give us an abundance of content, but they can’t give us access to everything. The consumer is forced to be selective. As services fight amongst each other to snap up the content that will lure in subscribers – commissioning some great material of their own along the way – it’s inevitable that the priority will be to cater to mass market appeal, rather than niche content.

I’ve always loved Friends, and it remains one of if not the most watched shows on Netflix. Yet it would be far harder for me to track down some of the more obscure content that I enjoy. To cite just two examples: Tenchi Muyo and Sonic SatAM – both shows that I adore – are nowhere to be found, at least to my own knowledge.

Not that I’m worried about this – I already own both shows on DVD. For me and many others, though, DVD (perhaps even VHS) remains the only legal way to access some of this material. The only alternative would be to scour the internet for hidden copies – legal or otherwise. This isn’t just a problem for the more obscure content out there; many classics remain nowhere to be found in streaming, whether for licensing reasons or otherwise. I’d caution anyone against throwing away their DVD players prematurely.

Unpredictability was always part of the charm of the music channels in particular, whether MTV, Kerrang, VH1 and so on. A curated Spotify playlist recycling your old favourites severely restricts the magic of discovering something new. Perhaps it’s just me, but far too often I find the highly selective nature of streaming services to be restrictive rather than liberating. It’s the only reason I first became aware of either Tenchi Muyo or SatAM: discovering them by chance when channel hopping.

We all know how frustrating it can be to scroll through the endless list of live TV channels in pursuit of entertainment, but there’s a real joy in stumbling upon gripping television by chance, or becoming reacquainted with an old favourite that you weren’t expecting to watch.

Another unforeseen consequence: content can be restricted.

The last year saw a number of high-profile British comedies pulled under the spotlight. No longer considered products of their time, iconic classics – ranging from Fawlty Towers, Little Britain to The Mighty Boosh – were suddenly deemed to have “problematic” content which needed to be concealed from a vulnerable public. Individual episodes and occasionally entire shows were wiped from streaming catalogues. Those that survived were often preceded by a content warning; perhaps the only reasonable compromise. Once again, if you were a fan of these shows and you still wanted to enjoy them, the only way to access them was to dig out the DVDs.

Content can also change. Star Wars fans are well aware of the ‘Greedo shot first / Han shot first’ controversy that has raged since the late 90s; the remastered versions of George Lucas’ classic trilogy continue to change countless scenes with every new release. While some of the changes are minor (mere additions to the background or replacing effects), the infamous ‘shot first’ controversy fundamentally alters the interpretation of Han Solo’s character from that of a cold-blooded killer to someone acting in self defence. In 2019, Disney+ added yet another revision.

These changes may have started before the advent of streaming, but streaming leaves all of our shows vulnerable to this process. Digital copies can be replaced and amended; scenes can be changed and meaning can be altered. This can range from the subtle correction of obvious errors to altering the meaning of material.

In this context, our cultural artefacts can no longer be fixed texts; they are ever-changing. In a world without “hard copy” – where the only available copies of a show are digital – our films and television are subject to the revisionist whims of new producers, seeking to “improve” products and diminishing their artistic integrity. By comparison, we wouldn’t accept this process with our classic literature. A hard copy – whether on VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray – is a “fixed” copy that cannot be altered by meddling executives.

These issues also show up in the realm of videogames. Anyone familiar with modern gaming knows about updates, patches, and DLC (downloadable content).

Fans of the (fantastic) fighting game Super Smash Brothers Ultimate will be aware that Nintendo offers paid subscriptions to access additional characters, slowly released over time. The updates and changes don’t end there, though. Abilities and skill levels of characters are adjusted with every update, with some characters strengthened or weakened as Nintendo attempt to “balance” the game. This process isn’t isolated – it’s a widespread practice across the whole industry. Unlike a cartridge copy of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, historians will will struggle to have access to a “final” copy of any of these games given their base release will have been updated beyond recognition.

Meanwhile, the complete experience of an earlier game – Super Smash Brothers Melee – is readily available on the disc upon purchase; there’s no need for updates or expensive subscription models.

You could look at these downloads as “enhancing” the base experience, with the subscriptions being optional extras for those who want them. Fair enough, to an extent, though there are worrying stories of Fortnite players being bullied at school for playing with only basic content instead of the premium. Tough luck if your parents are struggling to make ends meet; it’s the digital equivalent of not having cool trainers.

What if these downloads aren’t just “enhancing” the base experience, though, but actually fixing it? Game launches are notorious for “day one” patches – several Gigabytes in size that are last-minute scrambles to fix issues in the distributed copies. If you purchase a game – and are looking forward to just popping it in and playing – you may just be out of luck. A significant update may be required, often several hours in length.

In extreme cases, parts of the game may even be missing. Reportedly, disc copies of the Spyro: Reignited Trilogy were missing the second and third games of the trilogy on launch, which had to be downloaded from the servers. Again, tough luck if you wanted to play Spyro 3 and you have a dodgy connection, and even tougher luck for the collector – ten years or now – who picks up a copy and discovers only a third of the game is on the disc.

One of the standout games of 2014 was P.T. – a truly ground-breaking first-person psychological horror. Set in a single corridor trapped on a perpetual loop, the game was truly unique and a remarkably clever use of a restricted setting. Dripping with tension and atmosphere, the game – really a standalone demo for another, longer game named Silent Hills – was only available through download. Not long after’s it’s release, P.T. was removed from distribution following a dispute between the creator and the publishing studio. The game is no longer accessible – unless you happen to own a PS4 with it already downloaded on to it. Fans have since been taking it upon themselves to recreate their own versions to preserve this iconic piece of gaming history.

This might be familiar if you play games on your smartphone. Remember Flappy Bird?

All of this has implications for the preservation of our cultural history. There is a difference between a product being discontinued – with copies still physically existing for collectors and museums – versus what is effectively removal from existence. Physical copies of books can be passed down through generations, only destroyed by purges and book burnings: it is a cultural inheritance. What happens when we destroy the records of our films and video-games, or even digital-only songs or e-books?

DVDs and Blu-Rays often offer far more than just an opportunity cultural preservation. Frequently, the discs are packed full of special features: behind the scenes documentaries, audio commentaries, trailers, interviews, deleted scenes, and more. Even the menus are often full of colour and creativity. This stuff is addictive for film buffs and die-hard fans; if you enjoy the Lord of the Rings trilogy, then that extended edition box set on DVD is a treasure trove of new material to sink into. While the occasional ‘behind the scenes’ film may pop up, this kind additional material is rarely available on streaming services, and a real loss for fans. The one advantage streaming may have over DVD is in image quality, but that is irrelevant when watching HD in Blu-Ray (or even 4K for those real enthusiasts).

The economics are worth considering, too. A DVD or Blu-Ray is a one-time purchase. Streaming, being dependant upon a subscription model, leaves us are completely tied into ongoing repeat payments.

Price increases are mandatory to continue using the service; if you’ve ditched your home movie collection, there’s no option to suspend payments and just carry on watching what you already have. As more and more services continue to become available, content becomes increasingly siloed in paywalls and consumers can find themselves paying an obscene amount of cash to access it all. Inevitably, we’ll find ourselves making choices – simply accepting that we can’t access some content, because we can’t afford to pay for yet another subscription service.

It’s hard to see any outcome other an inevitable consequence of an increase in piracy. Where content is not available for consumers, the demand for it won’t disappear; they’ll merely continue to seek it out where it they can.

Streaming is a dog that will eats it’s own tail; as more and more studios attempt to set up their own Disney +, eventually the consumers can’t pay to keep up, and the House of Cards (pun-intended) is likely to come crashing down.

All of the above, and we’ve barely mentioned the the dependence upon a reliable internet connection. If Sky or Virgin is having a bad day, then – with no discs on hand to pop in a player – you’re not going to be able to watch or listen to anything until the service comes back on. If you live in a remote area with limited broadband – perhaps in the more remote Highlands or islands of Scotland – then you may be out of luck completely.

Personal experiences have been in my mind a lot while writing this blog.

One of my fondest memories as a child was visiting Global Video in Kirkcaldy High Street on a Friday night. For others, it was Blockbuster. I remembered being overwhelmed by the rows upon rows of unseen entertainment, excited by all the possibilities of what could be discovered. My father would rent three VHS cassettes and we’d return home for family movie nights. I still have nostalgia for those evenings – they were how I first saw Jurassic Park and Aladdin. Visiting the video rental store was an event; a mecca for entertainment, filled with the promise of an evening spent in wonder.

Kirkcaldy may have long lost it’s cinema, but I spent many a teenage weekend in Dunfermline at the Odeon. The thrill of seeing The Lord of the Rings for the first time on the big screen is something I’ll never forget, and the atmosphere was electric when I left The Dark Knight in IMAX. The trailers, the popcorn, the seats that lean back… Going to the cinema is a thrilling experience which can’t be replicated by streaming Wonder Woman 1984 at home, and it’s certainly not going to be easy for awkward teenagers to have their first dates in front of Amazon Prime.

Netflix didn’t exist when I first moved to Japan. Back then, I couldn’t carry my whole film collection with me. With only a handful of disc wallets – and not knowing when I would next be back in the UK – it was a challenge to narrow down what films and shows I’d be taking with me. Having only a select few made me value each of those films that much more; they were the ones I would come back to over and over again, and their scarcity made them all the more valuable.

And we can all recognise the simple gesture of kindness when being loaned a DVD or a game from a friend, sharing something that they enjoy with you.

To some extent, having so much content in overabundance devalues it. We scroll through classic films and think; “I’d like to watch it… but not tonight.” Those same films that we’d land on and enjoy when channel hopping. Rather than go back and appreciate new things in the films we love, we’re straight on to the next one. If a film or show has a slow start, it’s much easier to just abandon it as “not my thing” without giving it a real chance.

Perhaps it’s a bit daft – and highly subjective – but I also just like the aesthetics of a full book case. For me, it’s nice to have your books, films, and games on display. It just looks “cool”, and I like to peruse the catalogues of others when visiting them; their entertainment often revealing much about their tastes and interests. Who needs minimalism?

I’m not advocating for anyone to cancel their Netflix or hoard DVDs that they know they’ll never watch. I say all of the above in a conflicted mindset. I cannot deny the convenience of the streaming services, or the ease with which I can collapse into the couch and not have to get up to change the disc. I don’t have to wait for discs to arrive, or wait a week for the next episode. It’s easy, convenient, and entertaining.

And yet…

Streaming certainly has it’s place, particularly in a world where leaving the house feels a rare luxury. Yet I maintain – and I feel I’m not alone in this – that there remains value in the hard copies of our media. I also believe, perhaps naively, that for many people the magic of rediscovering this lies ahead.

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