Cord cutting our way back to 1980

Eric Wiesen Jan 29, 2013 Back to blog

I had a funny conversation with our analyst Kane Hsieh last week. One of Kane’s favorite games, popularized since he arrived at RRE last fall, is called “Make People Feel Old” (Kane graduated from college in 2012). As part of a wide-ranging conversation about first audio and then video content consumption, Kane dropped on me that he had never actually owned a player of physical media.

Which, after I did the Cheetohs Cheetah face-shake, kind of makes sense – if you graduated college in 2012, you were probably born in … 1990? Entered high school in 2004, well into the iPod era (no need to buy red book audio CD’s, which arrived about ten years before you were born). Never owned a DVD player even …? “Well, my parents have one”.

But it led to an interesting discussion – namely if, even in 2013, you don’t have a Blu-Ray or DVD player, how do you watch movies? “Netflix”. Right – but only the streaming side of Netflix, because … no discs for you. “Right, I use Netflix streaming”.

We talk a lot, particularly in tech, about the phenomenon of cord-cutting, of (mostly) Kane’s generation choosing not to pay the money for cable and existing on a media diet served solely by so-called “over the top” services like iTunes, Hulu and Netflix streaming. Opting out of physical media entirely is, I think, another panel in this same comic strip. The internet will provide.

This entire line of reasoning strikes me as odd. Maybe because my own media habits, built in the 80s and 90s for music when the quality and ubiquity of CD felt revelatory, making mix tapes and trading them around, and in the 90s/2000s building up a DVD collection that would always give me something good to watch and be relatively easy to store. Because I saw the Netflix DVD service as a powerful, personally fulfilling way to escape from the nearly universally dissatisfying experience of “what’s on TV right now” by allowing me to, in advance, prioritize all the movies I ever wanted to see and then arrange for them to be delivered to me with a cadence that mapped to my viewing habits. I probably watched one movie a week in those years, so having a 2 or 3 disc rotation was perfect. But maybe also odd because I intuitively assume that true “Internet natives” like Kane are more demanding of the experiences that are delivered to them, not less. And yet what Kane described – “I watch what’s on Netflix streaming” almost felt like a marginally superior version of my parents’ pre-VHS playing 13-channel television in 1979. You kind of just "flip around" until you realize - "Yeah, I never did see Empire Records ... maybe we'll watch that?"

I am still a subscriber to Netlflix and consume the streaming product from time to time via any number of my consumer electronics where Netflix has deployed their service, typically to watch back seasons of TV shows I later decided I liked or to watch documentaries. And so I’m fairly well aware that the streaming catalog … doesn’t really have very much good stuff in it outside of a few categories. The experience of browsing around on the streaming interface feels painfully like browsing the 800-channel “guide” of your local cable operator. Which is to say – it totally sucks. And you inevitably find “something to watch” rather than “something you want to watch”. The difference is pretty stark.

All of which is to say – for now I’m still happy holding onto my “legacy” mix of physical and streaming media. The majority of the movies I actually want to watch are on Netflix DVD well before they’re available on streaming (and it’s not like they are on other services either). The quality is still considerably better. I expect both of these to change over time but it was interesting and revealing to note that the generation who are allowing their needs to be met solely by the Internet are, like most generations of settlers before them, enduring a few hardships along the way.