Streaming Video Killed the TV Star

Cinephile Kevin Nguyen is impressed by Netflix’s Watch Instantly and Hulu.com’s feature-length film offerings, because now he doesn’t have to leave Twitter or Facebook to see a movie.

With releases like Beverly Hills Chihuahua, watching movies is getting harder, but at least the way we view them is getting easier.

After YouTube’s acquisition by Google, major networks and film studios cracked down on copyrighted material on the site, like uploaded television shows and movies. But when illegal content is removed from one source on the web, it takes safe haven somewhere else. For the past few years, YouTube imitators have become more common than AC/DC albums in the late ‘70s. Portals linking to TV episodes and movies, like SurfTheChannel.com, spring up as quickly as they’re shut down.

But luckily, major television networks and film studios learned from the RIAA’s pursuit of file-sharing clients like Napster, Morpheus, Kazaa, and Limewire. Instead of fearing technology, they embraced it.

Netflix’s Watch Instantly is a great example. Simply put, it lets you stream full-length movies on your computer. With your regular Netflix DVD-by-mail subscription, you get unlimited access to the site’s Watch Instantly library. For $8.99 a month, the plan is almost worth it for Watch Instantly alone. The streaming quality is excellent, loads quickly, and the viewing experience is bound only by the size of your computer monitor.

When the service launched a couple years ago, the selection was limited to, well, nothing you’d really want to watch, even if it was instant. But since then, the library has grown to 12,000 titles, most of which come from Netflix’s new deal with premium cable station Starz.

NBC and CBS offer most of their current prime-time schedule on Watch Instantly, which is great for catching up and keeping up with TV shows. Sure you can watch Heroes or The Office on NBC.com, but the quality on Watch Instantly is superior and more reliable. You also don’t have to put up with ads that come in every fifteen minutes. Recently, I’ve been watching the first season of 30 Rock (and when I’m alone, the third season of Hannah Montana).

Netflix is also expanding its support. You can also view the Watch Instantly library on your television with a small, $100, no frills player called the Roku. It works through wifi, and though I haven’t tried it yet, it’s received glowing reviews. Watch Instantly streaming comes to the Xbox 360 next week, and Mac support is in beta (current subscribers can opt in).

Another option is Hulu.com, which distinguishes itself from YouTube, Vimeo, and most other video sites on the web because its focus is commercial content rather than homemade videos. The site avoids any legal troubles because it’s a joint venture between NBC Universal and News Corp.

Right now, the selection is pretty limited, but there are a lot of great films available for free—Lost in Translation, The Professional, The Fifth Element, and Sideways to name a few.

I picked Raising Arizona because I’d never seen it. Viewing each full-length film opens with an unskippable advertisement. In Hulu’s defense, at least the ad is a tastefully picked film trailer, so fans of the movie theater previews might welcome it. I didn’t mind sitting through a preview for Choke. The runtime of Raising Arizona was about an hour and a half, and three or four times, the film was interrupted by an innocuous 30-second ad. Considering that Hulu is free, I didn’t mind these ads either.

The picture quality on Hulu is good, but not quite as sharp as Netflix’s. Since Arizona is from 1987, I tried out Behind Enemy Lines (I don’t know why), which was better, but not up to par with Watch Instantly.

In the end, though, my experiences with Netflix and Hulu were surprisingly good. As high-quality streaming video becomes more mainstream (giggle), we’ll see more content become available. (Don’t expect it from YouTube though; earlier this week, YouTube struck a deal with MGM to stream full-length crap nobody would ever watch, like Bulletproof Monk and I’m sure some other films that star Seann William Scott.)

Still, it’s unlikely that either Netflix or Hulu will ever stream new DVD releases. That would cut into the rental market, the profits of which rival the box office gross and DVD sales of a film. Even Netflix stands little to gain, since it would discourage members from upgrading their subscription plans. Of course, if you’re willing to rent individual episodes or films, Amazon and Apple’s iTunes Store both offer pretty solid digital downloads of new and old releases at prices comparable to your local Blockbuster.

If you’re like me, you have a long list of “must-see films” that you’re still getting around to. The internet is nurturing and growing the options for filmgoers, benefiting both the viewers and the film studios. At this rate, I might actually catch up on that list.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.