It was a bit of a shock when the First Doctor vanished from Netflix.
There I was, working my way through the adventures of the cantankerous original Doctor Who, William Hartnell, when they abruptly disappeared. In their place: a scant four mini-series starring the Daleks. Yup, Netflix had managed what the Daleks never could – it had exterminated the Doctor.
“If you think that’s bad,” someone later remarked on Twitter, “I was three series into Lost when that was pulled.”
Wags suggested it was for the best to be blocked from Lost’s final three seasons and early Who, but no longer having access felt like time and investment had been wasted. Netflix, for its part, briefly apologised and said it hoped those shows could return in the future — code for “we’ve wasted enough money on those, thanks, so just watch something else”. After all, there’s plenty to choose from.
What I and my suddenly Lost-limited friend had discovered is that Netflix isn’t entirely what people assume it to be. Pundits enthuse about it being a replacement for your collection of shiny discs (or, in the UK, discs mostly found in bargain bins). In reality, Netflix only resembles a DVD and Blu-ray collection if said collection semi-randomly has items vanish without warning, and relatively new ones sporadically appear. For Netflix’s part, it’s always — albeit quietly — said it’s a ‘fluid’ service, updating and rotating rather than purely adding to its selection.
Anyone who’s been around for long enough should have seen this coming. Depending on your age, you will have lived through many media formats, which have increasingly rapidly evolved towards a present (and future) that fully embraces convenience at the expense of ownership and permanence. I started out with vinyl but then spent several unhappy years battling cassette tapes, the worst possible medium for storage (and now bafflingly part of a retro resurgence, presumably championed by people with rose-tinted specs glued to their faces).
Next came CDs and DVDs, effortlessly providing almost instant access to any track or show on a disc. And then the fully digital revolution: piracy led the way, before Steve Jobs and the Cupertino gang cleaned up the centre of town, iTunes flanked by Amazon and a handful of other giants intent on kicking to death illegal download sites and, for an encore, a big chunk of the high street.
Sooner or later, someone smart figured out that if you can download a single track from iTunes, people would surely prefer immediate access to pretty much anything remotely related — for a fee. Boom: the streaming-services tipping point, where we find ourselves today. Spotify. Netflix. More than you could ever consume in a lifetime, for less than a new album and film every month, but with no guarantee your favourite content will even be there a month from now.
It’s perhaps in the nature of big business to screw things up through contracts, licensing and disagreements. Because you no longer own anything, collections shift and change not according to your own tastes, but due to the whims of executives obsessing about archaic exclusive contracts rather than making content accessible and affordable to all.
Lost in the cloud
The impact on convenience has been immense, but the impact it has on the future of media consumption remains to be seen. Perhaps people eventually won’t care if a show they’ve been watching vanishes — if a selection is big enough, there’s always something else to play. But when the concept of ownership is no longer relevant — when everything is in the cloud and not on your shelves or even your hard drive — there’s potential for content to be lost, to slip between the cracks, and for companies to dictate availability based on popularity rather than merit.
In years to come, maybe historians and even consumers will once again be thankful for the counter-culture, the ‘pirates’ who rip, store and share. They saved countless pieces of music, television and video games from oblivion’s maw, and might do so again. In the meantime, while the lure of streaming and cloud-based digital content remains strong, have a think about those songs and shows you love experiencing over and over. While there’s time, it might be wise to make them truly yours by investing in some physical items once again, even if the shelves you browse are inevitably increasingly virtual in nature.