Feature: The End of TV

Streaming television has never been more reliable, and the future of film and TV has never been so precarious

by Richard von Busack

It was September 25, 2012. The snacks were laid out on the coffee table, the IPAs were popped and the rental was paid. It was time to watch Marvel’s The Avengers on the first day it was downloadable from iTunes. On it came. Almost. The black screen of doom informed us that it would take 18 hours to download.

The next evening, we tried again. The Avengers was on just long enough to get to an opening scene of Tony Stark doing some underwater welding. “Is that Aquaman?” said the already-skeptical wife. The movie froze solid, five minutes in, staying that way for the rest of the evening. At this point, the wife wanted vengeance herself.

Downloadables left consumers with the familiar frustration of a show crashing in its first or—even worse—last 10 minutes, with screen freezes and spinning asterisks, or yet another apology in cruel white sans serif type. For more than two decades, visionaries told us that streaming television was the future of TV. By the time it was unveiled, on-demand video was so buggy that it was hard to credit the claims.

But this summer, the bugs are at last almost all gone, and streaming video offers much of what cable previously supplied. The innovation could be called “TV a la carte”—the experience of watching multimedia content untethered to a cable provider.

Los Gatos’ Netflix, which introduced so many to this kind of viewing, claims that what we all watched for the previous 60 years—“linear television,” they call it—is on its way out. According to Time magazine, Netflix’s downloads suck down one-third of Internet traffic. Already, more consumers watch television through an Internet connection than through a cable or satellite service. A reliable Internet hookup—a necessity for anyone trying to make a living in Northern California—provides a huge amount of film and television content for a relative pittance.

Americans are now discontinuing cable in favor of a $7.99 Netflix subscription, with perhaps another $7.99 subscription for Hulu Plus, and maybe a third $99-a-year subscription for Amazon Prime, whose original programming includes the Emmy-winning Transparent.

For golden-age studio fans, Warner Archive Instant, at $9.99 per month, offers one of the newest and most tempting Internet channels. Here are loads of Pre-Code, vintage anime and musicals. Last month, HBO finally abandoned its cable-only model for HBO Now—a $14.99 monthly subscription to get Game of Thrones, Silicon Valley and True Detective without paying Comcast. It’s possible to subscribe to all of them and still save money compared to cable.

A friend who works at a local movie theater attended a New York Times-sponsored seminar titled, “Look West.” He noted, “East Coast pundits and ideologues harrumphingly admitted that California is winning every culture war because of our stranglehold on tech. This particular iteration of the series featured the Hulu CEO, the Sling TV CEO and Vimeo CEO, all explaining why no one wants to watch TV anymore. They have these great phrases like ‘cord cutters’ and ‘cord nevers,’ meaning people who don’t even know what it means to have cable TV in their home.”

Netflix was the gateway drug to streaming; a system that proved it works, by combining a rising studio for original programming and pairing it with a reliable distribution network. The best evidence of the company’s aspirations to become a full-fledged studio arrived last month at a red-carpet event held at the Metreon in San Francisco, where a preview was shown of Sense8, a new Netflix series created by Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix, et al). Sense8 is about a group of eight individuals in eight of Earth’s most thrilling cities, locked together as a hive-mind by some mysterious technical/mystical/biological means.

Much of the cast came in for a grip-and grin-session in front of a picture window overlooking Yerba Buena Gardens. Activist and actress Daryl Hannah was there, as was Lost’s Naveen Andrews. Tearing up the place in a low-cut orange gown was the vivacious transgendered star of Sense8’s San Francisco sequences, Jamie Clayton. Working for Netflix meant a chance to see people like herself on television: “We’re not on the other channels,” she says.

Among the dozen-odd starlets, dressed to kill, was a mild-mannered and quietly dressed figure: Grant Hill, the Australian producer of Terence Malick’s masterpiece The Tree of Life, and much of the Wachowski siblings’ films. Hill said that while every studio is different, it was a new experience working with Netflix. “What’s different is that Netflix is its own distributor. And they don’t have a big development group.” It’s generally agreed among filmmakers that the most terrible part of filmmaking is “development hell”—the Dantean levels of rewriting and note-reviewing during pre-production.

“If you have a story and Netflix likes it, they will take it,” Hill said. “They’ll open lines of communication, and make suggestions—very astute, very helpful comments. I hadn’t worked in this medium before, so I appreciated the support.”

Netflix has 40 million subscribers in the U.S., and 20 million more elsewhere. By 2016, the company plans to be “pretty much everywhere in the world.” This year, Netflix says, it is spending $3 billion on content—original and otherwise. Despite this vastness, Netflix sees itself as a “passion brand.” Their communique—which they prefer handing out to reporters instead of speaking with them—states: “We don’t and can’t compete on breadth of entertainment with Comcast, Sky, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Sony, or Google.  For us to be hugely successful we have to be … Starbucks, not 7-Eleven.  Southwest, not United. HBO, not Dish.”

Gina Keating, whose book Netflixed studied the rise of the company, told me: “I am not at all surprised that Netflix has made streaming ubiquitous, although it did not look like a sure bet when the app was launched in 2007. The content catalog was small—mainly older titles. What sealed the deal was the disregard content owners had at the time for streaming. They just about gave away rights, not realizing the Netflix user interface had ‘trained’ consumers to look online for content. Plus, Netflix had seven years of data on its consumers and could tailor its catalog to what they liked. That data trove is the basis for decisions about Netflix original content as well.”

In addition to the original programming created in Los Angeles, under the direction of Ted Sarandos, Netflix seeks to cull the hundreds of thousands of movie choices into smaller but better programming. They “seek the best of the 20 documentaries about bicycling.” Then they measure the clickthroughs. The counting of clickthroughs—a mystery I’ll touch on in a minute—explains the vanishing of a film that you’d intended to watch. That, after the technical blackouts, is the single most frustrating aspect of a la carte TV.

The anonymous author of the Netflix Manifesto seeks the mot juste: Netflix is launched, its rival Hulu is (merely) turned on. Hulu went from beta-testing to a billion dollars in revenue within six years, after being financed by a consortium led by News Corporation and NBC Universal, and later Disney/ABC and CW. One critic—Mark Rogowski, writing in Forbes, suggests that Hulu should be even bigger than it is given how much industry money it had behind it.

But Los Angeles-based Hulu and its “hulugans” program tons of television, current and vintage. When I pay Hulu their monthly fee, I’m proudest about them carrying much of The Criterion Collection, the crown jewels of cinema. In this pride, I’m probably like my parents, who used to display that set of the Great Books of the Western World in their foyer, despite never reading them.

Hulu carries ads. Repeated ads. And that’s been the difference between Netflix and Hulu … until possibly the near future, since according to Fortune magazine’s Tom Huddleston, Netflix is considering before and after film advertisements in some markets.

You could contrast this Criterion coolness with the hotness of Netflix’s brilliant superhero series, Marvel’s Daredevil. Looking like a fan-made labor of love, the violent film noir exposes all the problems in its closest artistic rival, Gotham on Fox. Imagine what Daredevil would look like if it ran the gauntlet of the broadcasting industry’s standards and practices. Hulu, with the huge amount of industry money behind it, has scads of quality television in their trove. This doesn’t mean just obscure foreign classics, but the entirety of Seinfeld. All the episodes are indexed and ready for the picking, any time one needs a particular episode to illustrate the supineness of human nature. While the entertainment industry drowns in a swamp of male hormones, Hulu also carries Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer from Comedy Central.

Netflix takes justifiable pride in the creation of House of Cards. The American version soaked up the Tory union-busting quality of the original, British version, without noticing or caring about the difference between America and England. To echo the common complaint, the more you know or care about politics, the less House of Cards makes a lick of sense. (And Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film of Richard III, to which House of Cards owes an unpayable debt, is right there on Hulu.)

Remember when Steve Jobs said in 2010: “Nobody’s willing to buy a set top box”? The AppleTV, which Jobs also once publically referred to as “a hobby” has now gotten a bit more important. The recent Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco saw the unveiling of the newest model Apple TV. It’s rumored to have an improved touch control, providing the first updating of the device in years. It’ll have to be very improved to rival the Roku. Named after the Japanese number 6, because it was the DVR inventor Anthony Wood’s sixth startup, the Saratoga-based underdog TV system offers an assortment of programming that won CNET’s survey of over-the-top video players.

Lloyd Clarke, a longtime inventor and Roku’s director of product management, explained how a smaller company could compete against the larger streaming hardware developers. “We’re smaller, yes, and that means we can focus on what we can do better,” Clarke says. “Since 2008, when we started, we’re completely focused on streaming. We get up in the morning and that’s what we think about. There are currently 2,000 channels available through Roku—Netflix is just one of them—and we’re adding five to seven a week.”

The simplicity of Roku is what sells it. Clarke describes coming back from watching Avengers: The Age of Ultron with his son and then deciding to go back to track down all available Samuel L. Jackson films across all available channels. Roku can also notify consumers of the date that a certain film will be available, compare prices from various channels and then notify consumers when the prices come down.

A Roku is just about to replace my still-functional Apple TV of a few years back, as that little black widget slowly evolves into an intelligent drink coaster. Roku is more expensive than Google’s low-priced Chromestick, but the voice-activated software ought to be an industry standard. No more of that miserable pecking away during a search, one letter at a time, like the bell-ringing Tio Salamanca on Breaking Bad.

Will the new, omnivorous, non-linear viewing make it difficult to watch an entire film in the usual way we define a film—three acts, 90 to 120 minutes, credits at both ends?

Mike Mosher, the Silicon Valley recording artist formerly known as “Mike Mayonnaise,” is now a professor at Saginaw Valley State in Michigan. He says he’s not seeing a limit in the attention span among his students in the heartland.

“We use YouTube in classes, including TED Talks, and chafe when our university network chokes,” Mosher says. “But personally, we don’t watch streaming movies, except YouTube songs. We pop in a DVD or VHS downstairs in front of the big couch.”

Elliot Lavine, the film noir expert who is a teacher for Stanford’s Continuing Studies program, finds his students are still up to the task of watching entire films. “They consider themselves serious movie-watchers and are more apt to sit through an entire film very easily,” he says. “Since the students in my classes tend to be older than your average college student, it doesn’t seem to be an issue at all.”

Chipping away at the difference between movies and television is a subgenre of films released simultaneously on the digital screen and the theater. On Jan. 27, 2006, Steven Soderbergh’s film Bubble became the first movie released in the theater and on TV on the same day, with a DVD release following four days later.

At the time, Soderberg famously said of downloadable cinema: “I don’t think it’s going to destroy the movie-going experience any more than the ability to get takeout has destroyed the restaurant business.” One wonders if exhibitors share his optimism eight years later—2014 was a terrible year for business. Even George Lucas admitted in a lecture at USC last year, “What used to be the movie business, in which I include television and movies, will be Internet television.”

I asked Netflixed author Keating whether streaming will make cinema extinct, and she suggests it’s possible. “Because VOD [Video On Demand] is so cheap and programming is getting better and better, consumers are demanding a premium experience for the high cost of theater admission. If theater owners and content makers supply that, I think people will keep going to the movies.”

Lavine is more pessimistic. “It already is killing cinema and has been for some time,” he says. “Whenever ‘ease and comfort’ enter the equation, trouble cannot be far behind. Going out to the movies will eventually be a thing of the past, at least as far as modestly produced films are concerned. It won’t be long before only huge films will find their way into theaters. Everything else will be streamed into your home. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

As for the numbers of actual viewers these small movies will get when they’re relegated to Internet television, that’s an open question. As noted film journalist Scott Tobias wrote on TheDissolve.com: “We know nothing … figuring out what’s successful or unsuccessful on VOD—or the overall viability of the format, period—is like being lost in a wilderness within a wilderness. And the powers-that-be aren’t passing out flashlights.”

That’s what makes Roku’s April 30 announcement interesting: the Nielsen organization, famed for its television ratings, is partnering with Roku to quantify who is out there watching. The numbers matter to filmmakers; if they know how popular their work is, they have more leverage when selling their small handmade films to Netflix or another provider. It also matters to producers, who need to be able to prove a track record when it comes time to finance the kind of little film that will eventually only be viable on Internet television.

One wonders at the fate of the DVD, with sales dropping as the quality of high-def streaming increases. Cinephiles still buy Blu-Ray from specialty distributors to get the best out of their home theater. After the epic fail of Netflix trying to split itself into separate online and DVD rental, it’s still red-enveloping DVDs. But this post-office-driven market is declining. Bloomberg News reports that Netflix had 58 mail order outlets at their peak. There were 39 such centers as of fall 2013. Netflix declined to show me around one of the remaining distribution centers, or to speculate on when it forecasts getting out of the physical DVD market.

Keating says that the company is likely to be mailing out DVDs years from now. “(Netflix founder) Reed Hastings joked, before the Qwikster debacle, that he would deliver the last DVD personally around 2030. I thought that seemed like a very long window but he based his calculations on the projected lifespan of CDs and how iTunes had affected that growth curve.”

If CDs eventually vanish, and there is no semi-permanent copy of a film (it’s an open secret that the lifespan of a DVD is nothing like permanent), YouTube will be a last refuge for orphan films, public domain or public domain-ish work. YouTube won’t say what percentage of its content is feature films, posted legally or otherwise. What they promote is the homebrewed video, the celebrity housecat, the person who becomes a star while cooking drunk. What credits YouTube more is less wacky work: the marvelous array of instructional videos, music lessons and technical patches available for free.

Whatever happens, cinema is bound to undergo a change. And such a bounty of moving images has its downside. Structurally, cinema first emulated the play. Technical sophistication allowed it to become something more. With sound and length and depth of field, cinema was able to emulate the interior reveries and the social importance of the novel. And sometimes it transcended even that.

For decades, cinema lovers saw the form perfected—the three-act, 90-minute format. This format will come under pressure from the wide return of an older format than the novel: the serial. Not counting the primetime work like Mad Men, The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, do we often have movies as good as Korean soap operas? Or melodramas as juicy as the ones in Latin America?

“Feature films can barely compete with TV nowadays, both in narrative structure and style,” Lavine says. “Compelling filmed entertainment is now the property of the small screen. Film culture, as it was once known, will be forever gone. The motion picture industry is slowly and painfully committing suicide right before our eyes.”

It’s hard to see the end of what seemed like a perfect form into something that seems formless, open-ended. And it’s a little poignant seeing the event of a television show at a given time displaced by on-demand, a la carte viewing. It’ll be strange to explain to future generations what it was like to have a regular appointment on Sunday at 8pm for The Simpsons. A la carte television is one more element of decentralization in a land where the center long ago lost its hold.

And some are restless at the way a la carte TV becomes a hometown table buffet. Writer Akiva Gottlieb’s complained in The Nation, “If anything, Netflix’s frictionless all-you-can-eat access model has devalued the image … It’s turned the act of viewing into an endless game of whack-a-mole. I can think of few digital innovations more annoying than the pop-up bombarding you with related programming the very instant a movie cuts to black.”

The ultimate multimedia transformation of the moving image, predicted long ago, has finally come to pass. We’ve made our own hypertexts, combining a handheld device and a TV screen. With a television in front of our faces, and a smartphone in the palm, we cross-reference clothes and items. We comment on what we’re watching to an audience of Tweeters. What was that obscure song they just did the outro with on Mad Men? Where exactly is that location in New York?  Where have I seen that actress before? These distractions combine with the old incoming tasks familiar since the 1950s, when audiences first deserted the theater for television.

In his farewell to his 30-year career, San Francisco art critic Kenneth Baker paraphrased the poet John Ciardi: “‘We are what we do with our attention.’ Immersion in digital media has the peculiar effect of making it inordinately difficult to know what we are doing with our attention at the time.”

Now that so much is available for us, where will we turn our gaze?

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