How Digital Subscriptions Are Altering Our Relationships with Media

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Guest blogger Heather McIntosh started Documentary Site almost a decade ago as a resource and outlet for documentary media. Follow her on Twitter @documentarysite.

With independent distributors entering the digital subscription market, guest blogger Heather McIntosh considers questions of access, curation and ownership that emerge from consumers discarding their DVD collections for Netflix membership.

Netflix iPad app (Netflix marketing image)

The convenience of digital subscriptions, such as those offered by Netflix, raises questions about future access to media and the value of content.

A recent article in Filmmaker Magazine covered Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs) and Factory 25′s partnership to distribute Swanberg’s films on an annual subscription basis. For $99.95, subscribers receive a DVD and other related materials each quarter. According to the Factory 25 website, for one example, the film Silver Bullet comes with a signed and numbered box, a record and a photography book. The subscription appeals most to indie-film collectors.

The idea of medium-based subscriptions is not a new one. Magazines and newspapers have offered subscriptions since their inceptions. Record and CD clubs such as Columbia House and BMG offered a monthly selection, as well as incentives for purchasing music toward more “free” music, so long as one paid the appropriate shipping and handling.

DVDs also come to mailboxes through various subscription services, with some based around video and some surprisingly not. Film Movement, offers a DVD-of-the-month club, including a feature film, a short and a newsletter. For those seeking progressive documentaries, Ironweed Film Club sends monthly features and shorts, as well as “opportunities for taking socially-responsible action.” The Gaiam Company, which makes yoga mats, blocks, bands and other “spiritual health” products, offers a monthly DVD about health and personal growth through its Spiritual Cinema Circle.

These DVD clubs represent one type of subscription, defined by one dynamic of curation, access and ownership. In terms of access, these clubs might offer exclusive content only to members, or they might get access to content ahead of non-member audiences. In terms of curation, experts working with these clubs decide what to include each cycle, and subscribers put some faith in their decisions, providing an opportunity for surprise or discovery. In terms of ownership, members retain the physical media they receive.

Enter Digital Subscriptions

 

Digital subscriptions, such as those offered by Netflix or Hulu, shift these dynamics, but the basic premise is the same: In exchange for a monthly fee, subscribers get access to a mass of content, including films and television shows. At first glance, curation activities on these sites either fail to exist or remain unorganized. And there is no ownership. Once subscriptions are canceled, the digital content is locked away.

While physical media-based subscriptions offer maybe one or two titles per month, digital subscriptions offer access to thousands of titles without a time-based cycle so long as the subscription is maintained. Customers need not wait for access, either, as most sign-ups for these subscriptions are instant. While online streaming features an abundance of information and entertainment, not all of it remains available at all times. Some titles stream for limited periods and then disappear from the site, making it difficult or frustrating to revisit favorites. This abundance also tends toward newer titles and more popular ones from mainstream distributors, though independent distributors such as Troma and First Run Features do offer titles there.

Viewers seeking guidance on what to watch can read reviews left by other site users or check out the star ratings each item receives. Netflix will offer suggestions of what to watch based on items that appeared in your queue, but tightly honed tastes of obscure subjects and titles sometimes baffle that option. It recently suggested I check out WWE: OMG! The Top 50 Incidents in WWE History, probably because I watched Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling (Ruth Leitman, 2005). Users wanting guidance might be better off seeking opinion elsewhere..

But there is another way to consider curation here. Subscribers have the power to cultivate their own viewing experiences by sharing their virtual collections (and tastes), writing reviews, making lists and sharing their queues. This type of personal curation offers an opportunity to connect with other users with similar tastes, but this activity often reinforces the viewer-curator’s preferences, without allowing much opportunity for the introduction of new media unless they are sought out intentionally.

The concept of ownership makes the biggest change from DVD to digital. With a digital subscription, viewers get access to watch, but beyond that, their rights are limited. The service providers set prices and can (and do) change them at any time, as Netflix recently showed. And ownership of the digital title remains with the distributors. Viewers can respond to price hikes by leaving the service, but they lose access to everything that distributor offered and they retain nothing. Distribution is already a powerful part of the media industry, and this digital subscription option reinforces that power by keeping ownership and access (at least with digital items) with the companies almost exclusively.

In effect, personal ownership disappears through digital streaming, as does the idea of a personal collection. Viewers can and must access these digital collections on the distributors’ terms.

Questions About the Shift to Digital Subscriptions

 

These changes raise some interesting questions, though:

One, does a system like this benefit independent distributors such as New Day Films, which offers digital streaming through its own site? Might this digital distribution system work in the favor of independent directors?

Two, how does this system impact archiving and historical preservation? With companies holding copyrights for longer and longer periods, the chances of commercially produced digital assets entering the public domain in the future slims as digital subscriptions grow. How might cultural institutions get access to and engage in curation of these digital media, or is that activity going to shift to media companies?

Three, is there a way to ensure that viewers retain some influence in a system within which they have no (or limited) access? Or is the consumer’s desire to discard personal collections and replace them with digital subscriptions making this question moot?

And last, what does this system mean for the value of media content, both financially and culturally? Will the value of media decrease as they become part of a digital stream? Will these media — documentary films, for example — have diminished impact because they are less accessible to the public?

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh started Documentary Site as a resource for documentary media and has greatly enjoyed the connections it has fostered over the years.