It’s Friday night, and you want to watch a movie at home with that special someone. You could go to a video store and rent a film, and instantly it’s yours; popcorn extra. Or you could go to Netflix, and the movie will arrive, earliest, on Tuesday. Here’s hoping you had a Plan B for your big date.
Ah, but you love Netflix, the online rental service that delivers movies and TV shows to your mailbox. Since its start in 1999, the company has sent more than 2 billion discs to its 10.6 million subscribers, who return them in the familiar red envelopes for more titles. Wall Street generally likes Netflix, whose Nasdaq stock price has more than doubled since last fall, and so does the public; the company has the No. 1 customer-satisfaction rating among online retailers. As a professional movie watcher, I find Netflix a helpful reference source for my never-ending entertainment education. But I have misgivings about the service’s usefulness, especially compared with that of a real, well-stocked video store, and about the possibly harmful effect that Netflix and other online retail outfits may have on American society. No question, Netflix serves a need. It’s a virtual video store with more than 100,000 titles–movies and TV shows. And it’s cheap: for the four-at-a-time price of $23.99, you could conceivably see about 50 videos a month–if you devoted your life to the task. In a deep recession, Netflix has also taught film fans that renting a movie or TV series not only is way less expensive than buying but also takes up no shelf space when you move from your foreclosed home into your parents’ basement. That could be one reason DVD sales declined 13.5% in the first half of 2009, while Netflix revenues were up 21% in the year’s second quarter. At the same time, movie attendance has surged 8% this year. People are watching more, owning less. A Netflix ad has one contented couple purring, “We don’t miss the video store at all.” Well, I do. Specifically, I miss Kim’s Video, a lower-Manhattan movie-rental landmark that housed 55,000 DVDs and cassettes of the vastest and most eccentric variety–until it closed early this year and shipped the whole stash to Sicily. Admittedly, Kim’s was one of the gems, but cities large and small used to have video stores with all manner of movies that you could see right away. With Netflix, you surrender those basic American rights: impulse choice and instant gratification. You must cool your jets for two to four days, dependent as you are on both the skill of Netflix employees to put the correct movie in your envelope and the speed of the U.S. Postal Service. By the time a video arrives, you may have forgotten why you rented it. Wait Time: Eternity