Changing Partners


Video subscription service Netflix is increasing prices across the board early this year as the company finances its ever increasing production of original content. For about 4 million customers who still receive discs by mail, down from a peak of about 20 million in 2010, being asked to pay more to subsidize internet streaming content they may not want or, in many cases, be able to access, is a bit dispiriting, as if Netflix has forgotten the wisdom of the old saying “Dance with them what brung you.”


For most of this decade, Netflix has continued its disc-by-mail service as a legacy option while it focused on its streaming service and on offering shows produced in house. Customer service remained excellent even as the catalog of older movies and television shows available on disc steadily diminished. The large catalog of content from the mid-twentieth century and earlier is where Netflix really shined ten or more years ago. Blockbuster never offered as much, even in its belated transformation to Blockbuster Online. Redbox has also never had much to offer customers interested in anything other than the latest releases. Filmstruck had an extensive catalog of older, less widely popular content, but it closed shop last year.

Clipping of a news story from the May 4, 1928 edition of The Boston Post, announcing the start of television broadcasts by station WLEX in Lexington, Massachusetts.

For people in rural areas, streaming is often not an option because they have no broadband service or service that is limited either in speed or data usage. There are probably some Netflix customers who simply prefer a disc over streaming, but the majority of the remaining disc-by-mail customers are likely people for whom streaming is not a viable option. It has become a niche market, to be sure, and one that Netflix will sustain only as long as it generates enough profits to supply cash for the rest of its business. That window is closing.

Next generation television, which will increase the opportunity for local broadcasters to open more sub-channels offering niche content such as old movies and television shows, is at least another year away, and probably two or three before widespread adoption. Next generation television is a voluntary standard for broadcasters to send a 4K signal accompanied by internet data over updated and more expensive transmitters. Home viewers will need a 4K television as well as a next generation tuner, known as ATSC 3.0, and an internet router in order to take full advantage of the new broadcast technology. Viewers can still watch programs broadcast in 4K without setting up to receive the internet portion of the signal, though it’s not clear now if broadcasters will encrypt some of their signals to make them available on subscription or only for those who have enabled the internet signal.

Since the FCC has made the switch voluntary, broadcasters have much wider latitude in how they implement the new technology than they did during the transition from analog to digital, and the power of the new technology itself makes more options possible. The question is whether home viewers will tolerate the targeted advertising enabled by the internet portion of the signal, looking on it as no different than any other internet service.

Fahrenheit 451, the 1966 film adaptation by François Truffaut of Ray Bradbury’s novel, here with Julie Christie and Oskar Werner, is the kind of movie that all but disappeared from broadcast television lineups in the past 30 years. With the possibility of more sub-channels becoming available after the 4K broadcast rollout, perhaps broadcasters will once again air movies like this.

For people who already have SmartTVs and use them for internet streaming there will probably be no difficulty in adjusting; for those people in the niche market of getting their video entertainment by way of a disc in the mail and then being left to enjoy it in peace, having to cope with only minor nosiness about them on the Netflix website, the adjustment may be a step too far into creepiness. It will be interesting to see if next generation 4K broadcast television and its improved reception in rural areas, combined with a wider range of content, fills the gap being left by the general move toward internet streaming and, if it keeps broadcast television free, whether it will be an improvement over most of those services, though it is hard to imagine a local television station going as far as devoting a sub-channel to obscure art house films.
— Techly