Netflix, You Naughty Little Tease!

Following 2009’s economic downturn and the ubiquitous bailouts of big companies, anger about corporate greed has become a fairly familiar refrain. We’ve all had that sick feeling when we, the starving college students, consider those CEOs granting themselves millions in bonuses while their companies go bankrupt. But in the wake of a new corporate deal by Netflix, I find myself feeling something other than intense loathing mixed with light envy; namely, confusion.

Last week, Netflix made a deal with Warner Brothers, one of the country’s largest DVD producers. In a pretty transparent move to encourage consumers to actually buy DVDs instead of renting them, Warner Brothers somehow talked Netflix into imposing a 28-day waiting period on all of WB’s new films. This means if you don’t particularly feel like shelling out $19.99 for your very own copy of “Sex and the City 2” and for some reason you missed it in theaters, then you’re going to have to wait an extra month before your girlfriend can add it to your queue.

But the news isn’t all good. Warner Brothers currently has in production many films that you actually might want to see, from “The Book of Eli” to the admittedly far-off “The Hobbit” to a little film called “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” Sure, we’ll see them in theaters, but doesn’t it kind of suck that Netflix customers have to wait an entire extra month to get them at home?

It’s possible that this doesn’t seem like too big of a deal to techno-savvy cats like you and I. “We’ll just pirate them online!” you say. “We’ll buy them for cheaper on iTunes! We’re young and hip!” But remember that Netflix’s largest audience isn’t made up of modern day pirates. Demography website quantcast.com shows that most of Netflix’s customers are white, middle-class Americans over 35. These are not traditionally the people that commit digital crimes or know what an “iTune” is. If these people want to see a film badly enough, then as middle-class citizens of comfortable means they’re not going to wait a month. They’re going to shell out 20 bucks and buy it.

So, Netflix is giving away at least a moderate amount of business, not to mention possibly antagonizing Bill and Nancy Smith in Des Moines, Iowa, who really had their hearts set on “He’s Just Not That Into You” tonight. The cynic in me is excited to hear what they possibly could have received in return. Billions of dollars in offshore accounts for the Netflix CEOs, perhaps? Private jets and Caribbean cruises? Walk-on roles in the next “Terminator” film?

And here’s where I get confused. In exchange, Warner Brothers is planning to charge Netflix less for each DVD, and Netflix plans now to purchase more DVDs for the same price and expand their selection. It sounds like a good deal, but I still feel vaguely underwhelmed. I’m pleasantly surprised that Netflix seems to be at least keeping the customer in mind, but still disappointed that this was the best they could do.

As we’ve established, Netflix’s core audience consists of middle-class white Americans. Netflix has to know that that is their key demographic, and yet for some reason they’ve decided to withhold the current and buzz-worthy films that mainstream America wants to see in favor of a wider selection of what I can only assume will be more foreign art films and exercise tapes. If you’ve been to Netflix lately, you know that they don’t have many holes in their collection. A wider selection might benefit the fringe members with unique tastes like us worldly collegiate types, but it hardly seems an effective way to cater to their chief customers. They gave Warner Brothers an extra month of sales, and this was the best deal they could get? How about scoring advanced releases of certain movies in exchange for longer releases of others? You’d be the talk of your neighborhood when you were the only one with an “Austin Powers 4” DVD. How about getting some Warner Brothers merchandise to raffle off to loyal Netflix customers? How about offering Netflix customers the chance to attend special advanced Warner Brothers film screenings? How about not buying more Warner Brothers DVDs and just making Netflix cheaper to use?

I suppose I shouldn’t be so quick to write off this new alliance because there is one potential bright spot. Warner Brothers has also agreed to triple the number of films available to stream instantly at Netflix.com, which will give members faster access to more films. But again I would argue I’m only excited about this perk because I’m a member of a fringe group with unique tastes. I might get excited about having more movies available on my laptop, but again, I am not Netflix’s key audience. I would argue that many middle-aged Americans do not have the technical proficiency or else feel uncomfortable streaming films online, if recent technical mishaps with my father are any indication. Improved online streaming may be what convinces the under-30s of America to wait an extra month, but I worry that the majority of customers will not be as happy. So once again I have to wonder: was this really the best Netflix could do?

Jeremy Moore is a second-year English major. He can be reached at jsmoore@uci.edu.