When I was an undergrad, my professor would talk about stars and directors by showing us actual slides of them, all loaded up into the Don Draper “carousel.” Clips were on actual film, with actual projectionists, or an assortment of badly edited VHS tapes. When a professor recommended a film, I’d go to the video store and rent it for 99 cents, the standard fee for classic movies. I never missed a screening, because it would be nearly impossible to find many of the films on my own, let alone someone with a VHS that wasn’t in the common room at the end of my dorm floor. It was the good old analog days, when film and media studies was still nascent, the Internet only barely past dial-up, and Internet media culture as we know it limited to a healthy growth of BBS, Listservs, and AOL chat rooms. It was also less than 15 years ago.
My four years in college coincided with dramatic changes in digital technology, specifically the rise of the (cheap) DVD and the personal computer DVD player. Before, cinephilia meant access to art house theaters or a VHS/television combination in addition to whatever computer you had. By the time I graduated, most computers came standard with a DVD player and Ethernet, if not wireless, connectivity. That fall I signed up for Netflix. I envied those with TiVo. Two years later, the growing size of hard drives and bandwidths facilitated the piracy culture that had theretofore mostly been limited to music. Then YouTube. Then streaming Netflix. Then Hulu. Then Apple TV. Then HBO GO. Or something like that.
Today, we live in a television culture characterized by cord-cutters and time-shifters. Sure, many, many people still appointment-view or surf channels old-school-style. I know this. I also know people watch the local news. Yet as a thirtysomething member of the middle class, I catch myself thinking that my consumption habits—I subscribe to Netflix, Hulu Plus, and full cable; I still appointment-view several shows—are somewhat typical.
I’m so wrong, but not in the way I might have expected. My students taught me that. They watch Netflix, and they watch it hard. They watch it at the end of the night to wind down from studying, they watch it when they come home tipsy, they binge it on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Most use their family’s subscription; others filch passwords from friends. It’s so widely used that when I told my Mad Men class that their only text for the class was a streaming subscription, only one student had to acquire one. (I realize we’re talking about students at a liberal arts college, but I encountered the same levels of access at state universities. As for other populations, I really don’t know, because Netflix won’t tell me (or anyone) who’s using it.)
Some students use Hulu, but never Hulu Plus—when it comes to network shows and keeping current, they just don’t care. For some super-buzzy shows, like Game of Thrones and Girls, they pirate or find illegal streams. But as far as I can tell, the general sentiment goes something like this: If it’s not on Netflix, why bother?
It’s a sentiment dictated by economics (a season of a TV show on iTunes = at least 48 beers) and time. Let’s say you want to watch a season of Pretty Little Liars. You have three options:
1) BitTorrent it and risk receiving a very stern cease-and-desist letter from either the school or your cable provider. Unless you can find a torrent of the entire season, you’ll have to wait for each episode to download. What do you do when it’s 1:30 a.m. and you want a new episode now?
2) Find sketchy, poor-quality online streams that may or may not infect your computer with a porn virus. (Plus you have to find individual stable streams for 22 episodes.)
3) Watch it on Netflix in beautiful, legal HD, with each episode leading seamlessly into the next. You can watch it on your phone, your tablet, your computer (or your television, if it’s equipped); even if you move from device to device, it picks up right where you stopped.
It’s everything an overstressed yet media-hungry millennial could desire. And it’s not just millennials: I know more and more adults and parents who’ve cut the cable cord and acquired similar practices, mostly because they have no idea how to pirate and they only really want to watch about a dozen hours of (nonsports) television a month. (Who are these people, and what do they do after 8 p.m. every day?)
Through this reliance on Netflix, I’ve seen a new television pantheon begin to take form: There’s what’s streaming on Netflix, and then there’s everything else.
When I ask students what they’re watching, the answers are varied: Friday Night Lights, Scandal, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The League, Breaking Bad, Luther, Downton Abbey, Sherlock, Arrested Development, The Walking Dead, Pretty Little Liars, Weeds, Freaks & Geeks, The L Word, Twin Peaks, Archer, Louie, Portlandia. What all these shows have in common, however, is that they’re all available on Netflix.
Things that they haven’t watched? The Wire. Deadwood. Veronica Mars, Rome, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos. Even Sex in the City.
It’s not that they don’t want to watch these shows—it’s that with so much out there, including so many so-called quality programs, such as Twin Peaks and Freaks & Geeks, to catch up on, why watch something that’s not on Netflix? Why work that hard when there’s something this easy—and arguably just as good or important—right in front of you?
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