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.

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What happened to the music industry over the last 10 years or so was a lot like the plot of The Hangover. Bad judgment and self-indulgence producing chaos, pain, blinding sun, dim but lacerating memories … and you wake up to find there's a tiger in your hotel suite. It's been more than 10 years since compression technologies and ever-faster online speeds started making it easy to move media around online. That's the development that put the plot in motion. For music fans, what was first the slow agony—and then the thrill—of emailing a song to a friend evolved with ever-increasing speed into a world in which we can easily swap discographies of 10, 20, even 50 or 100 albums.

What that meant for the music industry was painful: Its sales are about 40 percent of what they were 12 years ago, and there are even worse metrics than that. (There's a chart on this blog post, for example, which demonstrates that people are buying about one-fourth as many CDs as they were in the 1990s.)

Throughout, chaos reigned: The fall of the CD. The rise and fall of the DVD; the rise and fall of Napster. The rise and rise and rise of the file-sharing networks and cyberlocker sites. Thousands of legal attacks by the record industry on file-sharers; the coming of Netflix; the opaque future of streaming services and cloud storage. Indeed, Steve Jobs recently announced Apple's foray into cloud storage. The idea is that we'll be able to match our iTunes libraries—music for now, but eventually video as well—to online repositories, where they will be accessible to all of our computers, TVs, phones, and pads. (I'm not buying it, but that's a subject for another time.)

But note that this has come a decade after the introduction of the iPod. While many of the industry's humiliating Hangover-like pratfalls took place in public, a lot worse was going on behind the scenes. The labels knew something was happening, but they didn't know what it was, and scrambled wildly—and spent that way, too—to get a piece of it. (Remember Warners and Imeem?) It took more than 10 years of rights wrangling, much of it done personally by the irresistible Jobs himself, with the recalcitrant and stubborn levels of the music industry, from artists and their agents and managers, to the record industry with the various labels and corporate parents, and then songwriters and their various rights organizations, most of which resisted technological change in every knuckleheaded way possible.

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Speaking of which, look at the New York Times today. Hollywood and the cable industry are teaming up to penalize illegal downloaders by taking away part or all of their Internet access after five or six warnings, the beginning of a new Whac-a-Mole game that, even if successful, will just see the downloaders move to new and more secure ways to move media around.

Right now, in fact, the movie and TV business looks a lot like the music one did in the early 2000s. And as we've seen, that decade didn't work out too well for the labels. So it's worth looking at the situation and wondering how things are going to fare in the TV and movie world in the decade ahead. It can all be summed up in one single sentence. I'll get to that in a minute.

The situation for watching a movie or a TV show these days is a mess. Here's a case study. If I want to watch some old episodes of The Office, for example, I have an extraordinary slew of options. But there are two problems with this. For one, I don't want a slew of options. I really just want one. And, as for the second, they're all hard to use or incomplete in one way or another.

DVDs, once so sleek and cool—you don't forget your first director commentary—are now unwieldy and a drag to use. You have to sit there waiting for the things to load, chugging like the digital equivalent of a Model T. Then you get all the FBI and Interpol warnings, several of them, in various languages. Go ahead, push the "top menu" button on your remote all you wish and curse the screen the way your father did his old console TV, but you're not going to be taken anywhere. The studios deliberately program the warnings so they can't be skipped. At some point, the disc allows you to start navigating menus to see the episode you want … and then you do it all over again, including all the legal warnings, when you go to the next disc.

Now, this is all for a product you as a consumer have taken the time and effort to pay and bring home to your house. In other words, you bought the thing legally, but the studios still petulantly want you to hear them whining about piracy, and have no evident interest in giving you control to use it as you wish.

So let's move to cable. When I used to subscribe to DirectTV, my DVR box had an enormous hard drive. As I watched my favorite shows—three or four on NBC, a lot more on HBO and Showtime, just for starters—I just archived the current season, along with scores of movies and the churn of daily and weekly news shows I keep up on. Then I moved, and am now back stuck with Cox, the Yugo of cable service.

My new DVR holds so few shows I thought the hard drive was damaged originally. They weren't. It was just the (sub)standard Cox offering. It holds now about 20 shows, and a few movies, and is basically useless in that it fills up every few days and starts deleting older programs. And, of course, there's no way to archive the shows I want to keep or add my own extra hard drive.

But what about "on-demand," you ask? Cox's is dismal. Press the on-demand button, wait a few minutes and you can page through something that looks like an in-room viewing interface in a Marriott from the 1990s. (There's no search.) Eventually you'll find the NBC archive, and then eventually a few episodes of The Office. Click a few times and wait patiently, and you'll find each episode comes with un-fastforwardable-through commercials, generally from movies of NBC sister-company Universal. Most of the time, there are only two, and they are each repeated about four times during the 22-minute episode. Most recently they were a mirthless preview of Little Fockers and an already-forgotten, simpering Zach Galifianakis movie called It's Kind of a Funny Story. Watch two episodes of the show and in the space of an hour you will have seen each of those commercial eight times. This is a less than optimal viewing experience.

Now NBC's not the only network, of course. HBO, too, has some on-demand shows available on Cox's system. But only some.

Since I'm an HBO subscriber, I have another venue for seeing old HBO shows that I want to watch or series I want to catch up on. The network provides it … on the Web. HBO now has a service called HBO Go. The site contains a fairly big chunk of the network's history. There's no Larry Sanders, but it's got most of the tony stuff—the complete Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, and Sex and the City, for example. This is great, and the next time I'm in NYC maybe I'll be the cool guy at the Spring St. subway station watching old episodes of Carnivale on his Nexus One. But I really want these TV shows available where I actually, um, watch TV, which is on the couch in front of the TV set. That, I can't get, and it seems odd.