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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

this is the most depressing interpretation of Netflix I’ve read

So, Alexis C. Madrigal at The Atlantic wrote a long piece about Netflix’s bizarrely specific genres — you know, like Inspiring Fight-the-System Comedies and Girl Power Satanic Tearjerkers; turns out there’s 76,897 of them. The piece is called “How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood” and you should read it, because it’s funny and rather in awe and also contains a hilarious Netflix-Genre Generator that created those sample genres above. It’s good for wasting 10 or 15 minutes pumping out weird genres and wishing that movies that fit into them existed.

But then Felix Salmon at Reuters had to go and ruin the fun by looking at Madrigal’s drilling down of Netflix’s system of tagging all the movies it offers and coming to less cool conclusions about what Netflix is up to. From “Netflix’s dumbed-down algorithms”:

Netflix can’t, any longer, aspire to be the service which allows you to watch the movies you want to watch. That’s how it started off, and that’s what it still is, on its legacy DVDs-by-mail service. But if you don’t get DVDs by mail, Netflix has made a key tactical decision to kill your queue — the list of movies that you want to watch. Once upon a time, when a movie came out and garnered good reviews, you could add it to your list, long before it was available on DVD, in the knowledge that it would always become available eventually. If you’re a streaming subscriber, however, that’s not possible: if you give Netflix a list of all the movies you want to watch, the proportion available for streaming is going to be so embarrassingly low that the company decided not to even give you that option any more…

So Netflix has been forced to attempt a distant second-best: scouring its own limited library for the films it thinks you’ll like, rather than simply looking for the specific movies which it knows (because you told it) that you definitely want to watch. This, from a consumer perspective, is not an improvement.

Netflix… no longer wants to show me the things I want to watch, and it doesn’t even particularly want to show me the stuff I didn’t know I’d love. Instead, it just wants to feed me more and more and more of the same, drawing mainly from a library of second-tier movies and TV shows, and actually making it surprisingly hard to discover the highest-quality content.

It’s actually even worse than that, as you’ll see in Salmon’s explanation of how Netflix is more like TV than it is like Blockbuster (or your late lamented local video rental store). Read the whole thing, and you’ll never look at Netflix the same way again. (And you may want to stick around here for my weekly posts pointing out the good stuff that’s available to stream that you might otherwise have missed.)


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  • Ken Patterson

    I’ve probably said this before here, and I’ve definitely said it elsewhere, but the industry considers streaming the same as broadcast. The licenses all have windows and other rights management that the general public never thinks about.

    Kind of proof of the industry treats Netflix as another broadcaster is that they’ve been winning Emmys and Golden Globes for TV shows. The other proof I use is when they had Doctor Who streaming, the episodes were soured from the same BBCWA tapes that I had when I worked for a PBS station (noticeable on the Tom Baker episodes that had commercial breaks built into them – see here for some information on that situation: http://www.dvillage.org/index.php/ktehsf/kteh-drwho-classic/kteh-drwho-classic-restoration).

    If you want the real Netflix experience, you still need to get the DVDs (and/or BDs) mailed to you. Even there, the industry still has some restrictions (the same would also affect the local rental store) but it’s not as noticeable, and usually don’t have any expiration.

    Streaming is still new, and the industry (and probably the unions) still has it’s collective head up its bottom in how to deal with it…

  • Damian Barajas

    “Netflix’s big problem, it seems to me, is that it can’t afford the content that its subscribers most want to watch.”

    And isnt this not a problem with netflix but with the way the movie owners want to build a system in which licensing is the norm?
    They fought as hard as they could against rentals except that that matter was settled quite some time ago, now, they want to claim that this is different from renting a movie because its “strreaming”. It used to be there is an established way for video stores to buy DVD’s and rent them, now, we have to contend with exclusivity, you can’t get this movie on Netflix so you’ll have to subscribe to Amazon and/or any other service in hopes htat they’ll have the movie you want to see.
    And of course Netflix and Amazon both have to have ghostbusters II so the movie studios are making a killing on licensing their old content.

    Seems to me that Netflix is just doing its best to offer you what they have.

    Now, the real controversy is going to be in the “net neutrality” fight when Verizon starts charging Netflix in order to prioritize their data traffic over Amazon, or whan Netflix itself as an A player starts courting the ISP’s for this which, it might already be doing.

  • Netflix has become more of a TV back catalog streaming service than anything else. It’s all I use for these days in any case, with movies more predominantly coming from Redbox (which ends up being cheaper for me because I don’t watch enough movies per month to justify the mail-in disc subscription), or occasionally through Amazon VOD if I’m impatient.

    Still, I think Netflix’s value as a TV streaming service is still totally worth the cost of entry. There are a whole host of shows from just the previous season on Netflix, and, if I’m in a nolstalgic mood I can watch Murder, She Wrote or MacGyver in a heartbeat.

  • RogerBW

    Studios are greedy and want their own slice of the streaming pie (or, ideally, to internalise it, as they have with DVD production). Of course, this means users will never get a suggestion to see another studio’s film, and soon enough they’ll notice and not bother with the suggestions at all. Or indeed not bother with any streaming service with its cut-down catalogue, and just yarr the things they want: quicker, cheaper, easier, more reliable, and you know which version you’re getting.

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