Debates regarding the pros and cons of streaming have raged on for quite some time now – and particularly in the bite-sized content age, where interviewers know the number of hits they’re to expect if they can get a nifty pull-quote from a director or other artist on the subject. While many decry streaming as the death of cinema, others see it as just making movies and TV shows more available to increasing numbers of people, all for the low low price of roughly $10-20 a month per subscription service. We can discuss and debate the merits of both claims and their gray areas ad nauseam, but what’s often gone unconsidered is how streaming has changed the way we physically relate to media, and the memories we come to associate with our favorite pieces of art.
I was too young to watch The X-Files when it originally aired, but I found it sometime in the mid-2000s, when it piqued my interest enough for me to order the DVDs of each season through Netflix. As many recall, Netflix was once a mail order service for movies and TV shows. A delivery Blockbuster in a time when Blockbuster was still around. I watched the pilot of The X-Files while walking on my treadmill, something I recall distinctly because of the dinky portable DVD player on which I watched it. I made my way through the first season of the show slowly, receiving one or two discs at a time, each with about four episodes. About halfway through the second season, I became genuinely hooked. I remember watching the season two finale, “Anasazi,” the point where the show’s alien mythology arrives at new and more interesting terrain. I was in physical agony without the next disc for the start of season three. While Netflix took its time mailing it, I scoured video rental shops until I found one that stocked seasons of the show.
The X-Files holds a nostalgic place in my heart. It came into my life at a time when I needed it most. More than a decade since I first watched it, I still think about it with sentimental fondness, like an old friend who helped me through a tough time. Yet this nostalgia is inseparable from the experience of how I first watched it. I was envious of those who had the experience of seeing it live in the 90s, waiting several weeks to answer the question of what happened after the Cigarette Smoking Man set fire to the boxcar of dead creatures that contained a very much alive Mulder. But I’m still grateful I was able to experience The X-Files at a time when I couldn’t binge it on a streaming service. There was something about the physical act of going to the video store, the anticipation of whether or not the disc I needed would be in stock, the excitement of seeing that it was, and then putting the disc into my DVD player when I arrived home.
The truth for many of us obsessives is that our love for the pieces of art that enriched our lives — whether they be film, TV, or even music — is inextricably tied to how we were first introduced to them. The streaming era, while certainly having its overall perks, has erased this to a certain degree. It’s worth eulogizing, and wondering what streaming offers as an alternative to the erasure of these experiences (or if it even can offer one). I know The X-Files wouldn’t be as special to me if I didn’t have the specific experience of scouring video stores for the next seasons. While You Were Sleeping might not be my favorite romantic comedy if my first living memory wasn’t also seeing it in a theater with my family when I was three years old. LOST is special to a lot of us because the series finale was one of the final network TV main events before the age of streaming kicked into a higher gear. What streaming erodes, to varying degrees, is twofold: the inimitable joys of relying on tangible, physical media; and art as something we actively carve time around.
What is valuable about having a physical collection of films or TV shows? It preserves our personal human connection to the art that matters most to us by distinguishing the pieces that left a lasting impression. We have to first decide, with our hard-earned money, that movies or TV box sets are worth buying in the first place. Having made that decision, we take the time to go to a store and choose which movie or TV box set we want to purchase (before time went on and we would also browse online). Maybe when we arrive at the store, we get distracted and see another movie we love for sale at a discount. It becomes a choice between several films – and maybe we leave with all of them, or only one, or, in the end, none at all.
The presence of a DVD in your collection represents an entire stream of choices. For whatever reason, it becomes a personal choice. It doesn’t have to be a wholly significant choice, but it’s still personal. Maybe it’s something you originally saw in theaters and enjoyed, in turn representing an even broader experience with the piece of art. Maybe it was on sale and a friend recommended it. Maybe it’s your mom’s favorite movie and you wanted it on hand for when she visited. The reasons are representations of our broader choices, consciously or subconsciously. The act of curating a collection should never be underestimated or undervalued, for the individual pieces are invariably items that make us feel more deeply. I can look at most pieces in my collection and remember why each one was a film I chose to buy, or why I asked for it as a Christmas gift years ago. There’s an indescribable warmth to the whole, one to which collectors of all sorts of items can easily attest. My late father felt similarly about his vinyl collection — he could probably tell you the record store he bought each one at, the year the album came out, the budget he’d allotted for records in any given month when one of the albums was released. Some of the records might not have been in circulation for very long, and so he had to buy them while he could.
The ways that we make time and space for the art we care about also shift with the technological landscape. Naturally, people still prioritize their favorite TV shows and films, but the urgency of the collective experience for which larger communities come together has eroded. Streaming apps have the obvious perk of allowing people flexibility around when they catch up on their programs. The downside, however, is that smaller groups of people watch something in unison, as a community of fans, and we rarely participate in broader cultural moments anymore. Of course, the extent to which this is actually a downside is a point of debate; many value flexibility in their schedules over going to the movie theater or participating in the “water cooler TV moment,” especially in an era when the water cooler in the common workspace is a thing of the past.
Though rarer now, participation in these cultural moments is still possible if you know the movies or TV shows that are best at building hype. Succession is one of a handful of shows where people across social media watch together as soon as HBO airs the new episode. While popular on Twitter, though, Succession is not quite a ratings juggernaut, so it’s difficult to find people in day-to-day life who care about the Roy family as much as the internet does. (Believe me – as a Roy family lover, I have tried to find them). Euphoria received similar treatment across social media while putting up high ratings, which speaks to HBO’s success in sticking to its weekly release model, despite the growing popularity of HBO Max and how easy it could be to post whole seasons at once.
Yellowstone is certainly another outlier, as one of the few shows on cable that turns out the kind of high viewership numbers more common a decade ago. This may be because it only airs on Paramount Network, and, though Paramount posts new episodes on its site the next day, you still need a cable package to access them, and new episodes do not get immediately posted to Peacock (which holds the streaming rights to Yellowstone). Thus, if you want to watch Yellowstone without downloading it illegally, watching it live is the most optimal way. And as far as films go, Spider-Man: No Way Home’s box office haul proves that Marvel Studios still beckons people to the theaters, as movies based on IP largely do.
The streaming era has undoubtedly been beneficial for many reasons. Streaming platforms’ increases in original content can drive diverse representation, both on-screen and in the production process. But most streaming platforms’ benefit to our day-to-day lives is in their convenience. Now, anyone who wants to watch The X-Files for the first time can do so more easily than I could, and without wasting fuel trying to locate a rental store with season three in stock. It’s certainly a space saver – I can cut back on the number of DVDs I buy if I know I’ll find robust selections of films online, especially on services for which I’m already paying monthly charges. For some, streaming might also be a money-saver (even if those subscription charges for streaming services do eventually add up).
Streaming also respects our time. If a TV show airs in a time slot that clashes with one’s schedule, it’s easy enough to watch it later through its streaming platform. Most importantly, during the pandemic, streaming has become a lifeline for those who want to watch new movies but would prefer to do so safely in the comfort of their own living space.
Convenience, of course, is great, until it’s not. Streaming has allowed movies to still be seen during the pandemic, which is invaluable, but just hastened trends we were already seeing before the first lockdowns hit in early 2020. I, for one, am glad that people are able to see movies safely. But the box office numbers for some films, like Spider-Man: No Way Home, show that it’s not just about wanting to watch safely; it’s also about which films people are willing to leave their homes for. Over the past decade, we’ve seen the decline of the mid-budget movie, which should have been an early indicator that movie theaters would one day become places we go to see the latest big-budget studio flicks, and maybe whichever smaller budget and indie films were lucky enough to receive a theatrical distribution (and maybe one day only in the major metropolitan areas). We must simply acknowledge the fact that movies are no longer a cultural touchstone for the wider population. Or if they are, figure out how to bring those audiences back.
Accepting this begs the question of what the cultural touchstones are now, whether the replacement is better than its predecessor, and what it all means for film in the future. Mostly, the problem with film and the current technological landscape isn’t that streaming has to be bad for art — in some respects, more platforms can allow more diverse voices to be heard. It’s that distributors are rarely creative in how they connect their streaming content with their audience. Much of streaming and the current ways we consume and digest films and TV is passive, forgettable. The algorithm simply suggests more of the same type of content it thinks we will like, rather than exposing us to more genres, or new terrain, or letting the individual seek out what they want and making new and interesting discoveries along the way. Art, like technology, will always change, and new technology will always fix some issues while creating others.
We also shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking that execs once cared about people’s personal connections to movies and TV. These companies have always valued their bottom line more than cultivating cinema and TV as important life experiences. Sadly, the current landscape has not suggested or developed any suitable alternatives to the more meaningful ways we once connected to film and TV. This is far from a priority for most corporations, and this is a problem only a devout few will actually see as one. But it does affect everyone in a wider sense, as we fail to create lasting memories associated with the films and TV we enjoy, as we no longer curate personal libraries that reflect our own interests and experiences back at us.