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Netflix and The Evolution of Our “Must See” TV

July 18, 2011

Netflix used to be the boyfriend I wanted to marry: incredibly varied, courteously attentive, and fair to his very core.  Then the email arrived announcing their 60% price hike.  Now they’re just the guy I’m going to cheat on the first chance I get.

Anyone who has read my blog for a while knows that I believe that all providers of television content should be contributing to the production pipeline.  In my piece on the high cost of drama, I talked about a show that was canceled in part because much of the audience was watching on Hulu.  I knew that Netflix couldn’t go on charging so little and keep its selection broad and current.  I just thought they’d do a better job of laying some public groundwork and establishing a more obvious collaborative relationship with the production community before handing the audience a bill.  I also anticipated that they’d offer some reward to those of us who signed on for both DVD and streaming services now, even though one relies on the unreliable post office and the other (at least at my house) conks out at intervals and doesn’t have that much in it at the best of times.

Some critics have remarked that Netflix should have expanded their streaming library and made the service more reliable before raising the cost of a combined subscription.  Others have suggested that an incremental raise would have captured less negative attention.  Based on media reports, they cannot improve that side of their business until enough of us fork over the additional money.  And time is of the essence.  Several of their studio contracts had already expired or been drastically reduced before last week’s big announcement.

In fact, for the first time in three years, I recently called customer service to complain about the content.  I had been indulging in an encore viewing of Showtime’s The Tudors when suddenly every other “disc” was pulled.  Episodes 1-3 and 7-9 of Season One were still available, but I’d have to get the DVDs for 4-6 and 10.  The streaming then picked up again with episode 4 of the second season.  Henry was onto a new wife and a large number of supporting characters had been separated from their heads.  Among other things (like extreme annoyance) this meant I couldn’t recommend one of my favorite series to any friends who had streaming-only plans.  It seemed a downright goofy move to make with a program that was no longer on the air.  Obviously, the person on the other end of the phone didn’t have any decision-making power, but she did share that they were having multiple problems with Showtime.  Criticism was particularly vehement about the abrupt disappearance of Dexter.  More money would likely restore this premium content to the lineup.

I agree with those who say that Netflix is unlikely to lose many customers over the new fees.  Folks will growl and grumble to be sure; then they’ll remember that a movie in the theater costs $11 and put things in perspective.  But I also think the company greatly miscalculated how much the rate increase would erode the loyalty people have to their brand.  No one can feel it’s fair to pay so much more next month for exactly what they received last month.  I expect many viewers to more actively explore other options among Netflix’s growing field of rivals.  We can no longer depend on them for a certain level of behavior, so they’d better not depend on us.  How would we have taken the news had they also granted us exclusive access to Something Special once they moved to an exclusively streaming model: their ultimate goal?  Something, anything for helping them regain their competitive edge.  I’d have felt more like a tiny investor in their future and less like an insignificant serf forced to support my lordship’s castle expansion. For an enterprise famous for skating to where the puck is going to be, Netflix has taken what strikes me as a huge public relations misstep.

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