Digital downloads: Hollywood is about to repeat the catastrophic mistakes of the music industry.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
July 8 2011 6:16 PM

Groundhog Decade

Hollywood is about to repeat the catastrophic mistakes of the music industry.

(Continued from Page 1)

So then there's Netflix. (Note that I'm now on my fourth media financial outstream—first cable, then DVDs, then premium cable, and now an additional $23.99 a month for Netflix.) Netflix has a fairly impressive library of film and TV shows available on DVD. But of course you have to wait a couple of days to get something (I'm including the time it takes to mail your other disc back), and there are the gaps for films and shows that just aren't on disc. (Like the Australian Wilfred, for example.) Irritatingly, Netflix doesn't provide a way to request titles, either.

Now, Netflix also has a limited number of films and TV shows on its on-demand streaming service. Netflix streaming works fine. It's fast and responsive. The only problem there is that the Sony PS3 through which I access it has become a supreme annoyance. Even before its recent hacking problems, the PS3 had become incredibly pushy, suddenly demanding I sign onto something called the PlayStation Network before I could watch a Netflix video. (This could have something to do with my move to Cox, I'm not sure. But I also don't care. I just want to watch a movie on Netflix.) In recent months the thing also began greeting me with an annoying Netflix sign-on screen instead of just signing me in. The sign-on screen includes a little check box that lets me tell it to sign me onto Netflix automatically. It shows me this little check box, in fact, no matter how many times I've already checked it.

Once the PS3-hacking issue got underway, a new phenomenon resulted: After being forced to use that annoying Netflix sign-on screen, I would then be told I needed first to go sign on to the PS3 network … which was of course down. I would be routed to a screen that said I couldn't in fact sign on to the PlayStation Network, and was told to push a button to go back to the previous screen … which told me I couldn't sign on to Netflix until I signed onto the PlayStation Network. This merry-go-round continued for a few more iterations before the thing gave up and let me onto Netflix. Imagine the fun for parents who just want to show their kids Toy Story 3.

Anyway, once you manage to access Netflix, the first six seasons of The Office are available for immediate streaming—but not, for some reason, the current season.

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At this point I don't really want to spend the time to explain how annoying the PlayStation store's video offerings are to use. (You can get some Office webisodes there.) Or to talk about another video HD service on the PS3, called Vudu, offering "Top Quality High-Speed Streaming Movies on Your PS3™ System!," which sounded exciting and was intriguing right up to the point where nothing happened when I clicked on its icon. Or to discuss how difficult it is to get Hulu Plus up and running. That service lets me see the current season of The Office and finally makes the show's complete archive available to those who are not exhausted. (Who said TV isn't mentally stimulating?) It's $7.99 a month, too, or the fifth payment plan so far, but who's counting?

(Apple TV, you ask? Netflix works better on that, of course, but it has other problems. There's no disc drive, so I can't replace a DVD player with it, much less a Blu-ray, or play data discs the way the PS3 lets me. And there's no convenient USB port for a thumbdrive, which the PS3 also has.)

This frustrating and pointless process can be repeated with any TV show you wish, or any group of director's films or any genre. Some parts of it are available here under these circumstances, some are available there under those. Some in this place, some in that, and some not at all. And the availability can change without notice.

The trouble facing the movie industry right now is the same one the music industry had to confront 10 years ago. This is the summing-up sentence I referred to above:

The easiest and most convenient way to see the movies or TV shows you want is to get them illegally.

Now, I recently obtained, through sources I will not divulge for obvious reasons, a single DVD disc with 22 episodes of The Office on it as data files—a complete season. (Since I already own all the DVDs and got the disc just to make a journalistic point, I hope the courts will be lenient.) I can play it on my PS3 and I can take the disc with me when travelling to watch on the computer.

This obviates the need for four or five DVD discs. The quality isn't high-end HD, but it's quite good. And of course I don't get the extras like the deleted scenes, though I'm sure I could if I wanted. The PS3 has a Bluetooth remote, much better than standard-issue cable-company ones, that responds to commands with lightning speed. And there are no FBI or Interpol warnings.

Again, to belabor the obvious: The illegal version isn't just free. It's better.

Here's one more example. Vuze is one of the most popular bit-torrent clients. I don't know when it happened, but some months ago I noticed some new icons under the video menu on the PS3. "Vuze on Macintosh" read one. "Vuze on PC" said another. I poked around, and finally figured out that the Vuze program on my computers had added a new feature, one that that lets you play on your TV the video sitting on the connected devices on your home network. The feature had installed itself automatically on the PS3. That's a little scary, I guess, but compare this to how, right after I downloaded Hulu Plus, I started it up … and was told I had to download an update. Now I just toss any video I have on my computers in the Vuze PS3 folder and I'm good to go.

It's not perfect, but it's incredibly useful. It's also thoughtful, in the sense that the program anticipated what people might need and made it happen. (It also plays all of the various video codexes, unlike Apple TV, which handles just the limited ones its QuickTime player is comfortable with.) There are no terms and conditions, no Interpol warnings, and no sign-on screens, and best of all there is no artificial divide between this season and that of some TV series. It's all there when I want it. Why should I go back to on-demand or Netflix?

In the music industry throughout the 2000s, the record labels were hampered by a number of things—their own lack of technical knowledge, the sprawling and discordant number of rights holders, corporate paralysis in the face of change, or just, in some of the more enlightened operations that tried to ride the wave, some bad guesses about where the technology was going to go.