Like millions of other Americans, I’m a Netflix subscriber who’s been enjoying the company’s recently expanded “Watch Instantly” feature. In fact, I’d been an early Netflix adopter who dropped the service when I realized I didn’t need movie rentals by mail (because I was already receiving too many review-copy DVDs to keep up with), but once Netflix made “Watch Instantly” available to Mac users and TiVo owners, I signed back on. I still don’t really need Netflix, but I’ve found it useful when working on some reviews or columns to have immediate access to a movie or TV show I’m referencing. Lately I’ve gotten in the habit of checking Netflix first for just about anything I want to see.
The problem, of course, is that the “Watch Instantly” section of Netflix doesn’t have anything close to a comprehensive selection. The ultimate dream for the media-savvy would be to have the ability to pull up any movie, TV show, piece of music, book, magazine article—anything we’d need, for entertainment or research—cheaply and legally. And though we’re moving closer to that ideal, we’re not quite there yet, due to rights issues, proprietary technology, and general uncertainty over whether there’s any way to make an unlimited media library profitable. (Though certainly Netflix, Apple and Amazon seem to be doing pretty well with their respective digital distribution channels.)
To be honest though, while I do want the all-access dream to become a reality, I can see some benefits to the way things are now. For example: Although Netflix doesn’t allow me to “Watch Instantly” anything I want, I can’t say that I’ve exhausted the all the available content that’s worth seeing. A lot of what Netfix has available to stream are documentaries and indie flicks that I missed the first time around, along with a lot of the old TV cop shows I love, a whole bunch of live footage of bands I like, some stand-up comedy, several Showtime series I haven’t seen, a fair amount of old movies… basically, I could watch something from Netflix via my TiVo every night for the next year and I’d still be finding more to check out.
Similarly, I pay for 90 downloads a month from eMusic, and though I can’t rely on the service to have all the new music I’m looking for, I currently have some 250 albums on my “save for later” list, and I add about two or three new ones a week. And though I was initially dismayed to find that Amazon's Kindle store contains far more recent best-sellers than older titles, I've since learned that I can load free books from Project Gutenberg onto the Kindle, and thus could conceivably use the device for the rest of my life and never pay a dime for content.
I was interviewing singer-songwriter-actor Will Oldham recently, and he registered some complaints about the modern trend toward connectivity and digitization. Oldham’s kind of a complainer by nature—as you’ll see when the interview runs—but I’m somewhat sympathetic to his concerns. I use my cell phone only when I’m traveling, so I can call home without having to scramble back to my hotel room (or find an increasingly rare pay phone). But I only turn the phone on when I’m making the call, and then I turn it back off again. I'm just not a cell phone guy. In fact, when I walk through the college campus near my house and see nearly every kid talking on the phone between classes, I have a hard time understanding what they’re up to. Who are they talking to? What are they talking about? What’s so important that they have to call now? Then I remember that I didn’t grow up in a cell-phone-saturated society the way these kids did, so I can't fully understand their habits. Besides, many of my knee-jerk complaints about habitual cell phone use are similar to those leveled at my Walkman/Discman/iPod generation by our parents and grandparents.
Anyway, in every other aspect of our technologically advanced society, I’m more an go-with-the-flow-er than a Luddite. I’ve got my HDTV, my TiVo, my Blu-ray player, and my computer on which I stay connected via IM, e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, RSS feeds, and multiple on-line sources for music, video and text. I don’t dread the future of the printed word, because I’ve become accustomed to reading on an electronic screen (while following links to related content), and I’ve had no problem spending a half-hour or more just reading a long magazine article or a few chapters of a novel on my iPod, without falling prey to the other distractions that the device offers. (Or to eyestrain, for that matter)
And increasingly, I'm finding something romantic about the idea of the limited pools of content available on-line. The hundreds of fan-sites that used to pop up on search engines for seemingly every TV show or band have been winnowed down to a handful over the past decade. And on-line media outlets are shuttering almost as fast as their brethren in print. It all takes me back to the pre-cable days when the average TV watcher had about six channels to choose from (three networks, one PBS, and a couple of UHF) and the cultural conversation was more shared. Or—so as not to put everything in couch potato terms—it reminds me of visiting my grandmother’s small town during the summers of my boyhood, and picking through the kids’ section of the tiny public library until I’d read just about everything in it.
Let me reiterate: I’m for getting more movies, more books, more music, more everything available in the digital realm. And when I read articles like this one by Anthony Kaufman about all the great movies that used to be available on VHS but aren’t yet on DVD, I pine along with him. Then I remember that I’m still catching up with everything in the TCM, Fox Movie Channel and Starz/Encore libraries, along with all the old game shows, industrial films and music videos I can find on YouTube. True, not every movie you’d ever want to see is available to Watch Instantly on Netflix or the like. But have you seen all the movies that are?