Convenience vs. Collections: The Netflix Case

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In my family, we have had a Netflix membership since 2005 and it was the best thing since sliced bread.

We had moved to a new region of the US with awful traffic congestion and—to my small-town perspective—incredible suburban sprawl. With Netflix, we would never have to find “our” video store. Netflix’s catalog was extensive, featuring television shows as well as major motion pictures and limited-release documentaries. Reviewing hundreds of movies I had seen, receiving recommendations for titles I’d possibly be interested in and subsequently building a queue of DVDs Netflix would send me offered an unlimited supply of DVD entertainment! Netflix provided an improvement over a local video store in cost, content and convenience.

Now, almost six years later, in response to the recent changes to Netflix’s pricing models, my family has dropped the mail order piece of our Netflix subscription. Rather than suffer a price increase for the content we were already receiving, we cut our costs, based on our pattern of viewing behavior, which had become almost exclusively dependent on streaming. Now we watch exclusively streaming media from Netflix on either our television (via the Wii console) or my wife’s smartphone. We lost access to special features, like outtakes and commentary, often featured on the DVDs and which we occasionally watched. Nonetheless, when Netflix began charging for streaming titles, we delightedly began paying for streaming media instead of mail order DVDs. We chose convenience over content.

Giving up DVD special features and a larger selection of titles are not the only sacrifices we made. Certainty about whether Netflix offers a particular title also went out the window. As NPR reported yesterday, Netflix’s streaming catalog is smaller than its mail-order catalog. Titles in its streaming catalog may come and go. As the NPR piece illustrates,

Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, says Netflix has to "negotiate the rights to each piece of content separately."

Pachter says DVD rentals were easy — all Netflix had to do was buy a copy of a DVD and rent it out. But streaming a film like Inside Job is more complicated.

Netflix has a deal with Starz, a premium cable channel that has its own deal with Sony, which owns the rights to Inside Job. And for a little while Inside Job and other Sony pictures like The Social Network were on Netflix. Then they just disappeared.

I assumed that, when we got our Netflix subscription in the first place, the catalog of titles would be expanding and in no case contracting. With streaming media, this assumption is false. Similarly, libraries face challenges in collection development by providing convenience to our patrons at the expense of control over what we offer on a title level. A purchase of streaming content, e-book packages or journal packages is not a perpetual guarantee that we will continue to provide the same titles we purchased. Instead, our collections are becoming dynamic, moving targets of access to information. A researcher cannot necessarily go back to a resource she uses in conducting research.

Next week, we’ll look at Barbara Fister’s recent blog post about the health of the e-book publishing industry and expand on the implications for libraries in building collections of content we don’t control.