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Video Streaming Services as Media Artefacts
Video streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu have re-configured the medium of recorded film and broadcast television in order to move these forms of media to a new technological interface. The effects of this reconfiguration are wide-ranging in terms of social, economic, and ideological concepts.
What are the combinations of technologies and other conditions that make up this form of media?
Video streaming is not a self-contained media artefact. There is a history behind its development that involves many different socio-economic factors. Lisa Gitelman made the point that artefacts are “reflexive.” She used the example of papers from the Salem witch trials. The content of the papers hold great importance, but so do the physical components of ink and paper that make up these papers (Gitelman 20).
Much like the capitalist ventures surrounding the telegraph (Carey 4), video streaming is dominated by a few large companies that are vying for control over the market. Netflix was an early adopter of this technology. Netflix was originally set up as a subscription-based service that delivered DVDs (and eventually video games) to the home. There were no late fees or tedious trips to the video rental store involved. It wasn’t until around 2007 or 2008 that Netflix launched another feature that allowed subscribers to access movies over the Internet (Anderson 1). Video discs, or DVDs, have not been rendered completely obsolete since then. Friedrich Kittler writes that old media is usually found elsewhere and is re-purposed (Kittler “The History of Communication Media”). However, one outcome of Netflix’s rise in popularity was the decline of video rental stores such as Blockbuster (“Movies to Go”). Blockbuster has since launched its own service, but has not fared well against competitors. Hulu, another streaming service, also appeared around 2007 or 2008. It was originally a free service, but has since implemented a paid subscription service called Hulu+.
Netflix’s main competitor is Amazon, which offers Amazon Instant Video to its customers. Amazon Instant Video was released recently in comparison to Netflix. Netflix had not faced much serious competition until Amazon launched its service. Another interesting aspect of their relationship is that Netflix uses Amazon’s cloud services to host its content. Netflix streaming was down this past Christmas Eve because of problems with Amazon’s cloud computing service (Chen 1). There are several important immediate effects of the emergence of Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, and the relationships between them. Competition is driving subscription rates up, there is heavy reliance on cloud computing (and therefore Amazon), the playback technology for film and television has to be incorporated into this new digitization, and the streaming technology of these services is a new and unfamiliar tool to many of its users. There is also the sociological aspect of who is using video streaming and why viewers are migrating to this new technology.
How do space and time factor into the consumption of this media?
The abandonment of physical spaces such as Blockbuster indicates a shift in our concept of space and time. The use of the term “instant”, for example, has re-configured the idea of wait time and playback in regards to video and other entertainment. Video streaming services deliver content at a rapid-fire pace. People can easily catch up on movies and television that might not have been as readily available to them several years ago. Quick load times have now become a technological norm that we do not notice until it breaks down and gives us the “buffering” sign on our screens.
James Carey wrote about the telegraph’s overwhelming effect of freeing up communication in regards to geographical movement (Carey 3). Video streaming has created boundaries instead of removing them. Netflix is available to a few select countries including North America, South America, the UK, and Ireland. Amazon Instant Video is only available in the US. Hulu is available to only US and Japanese customers, but there have been illegal proxy servers set up so that viewers from outside the country can use Hulu. These boundaries are set up in accordance with the companies’ wishes for distribution of content, but it also inadvertently constructs new concepts of space on the Internet. Similarly, international standards for content sharing and distribution must be taken into consideration. This results in the creation and/or re-configuration of other technologies such as proxy servers to get around these invisible boundaries. On the other side of these boundaries, streaming services are offering international content. Those who have access to these services are able to learn more about foreign cultures through film and television.
What are the social-ideological effects?
Video streaming services have aided the standardization of the interface for online video controls and features. Elizabeth Eisenstein discussed the concept of standardization in regards to typography (Eisenstein “Some Features of Print Culture”), and the same can be applied to video player interface (Fig. 4, 5). There is always a scrub bar through which the viewer can adjust the timecode of the video. There is a play and pause button, and an option for full-screen. Other features usually include HD streaming, dimming the lights on the screen, and rewinding ten seconds of video. Most of these features have become uniform standards. These features rely on video editing programs for their features, and encourages direct participation and manipulation of video content on the part of the viewer.
Figure 4 and Figure 5
In the excerpts from McLuhan’s book, he wrote about Narcissus and narcosis. McLuhan was exploring the concept that we regard “gadgets” and other media technology as extensions of ourselves (McLuhan 42). Video streaming services takes the idea of watching video content in the comfort of one’s home and expands its mobility. Characters and TV personalities had become a part of our families because we invited them into our living rooms every evening. However, now we invite them onto our cell phones and computers. We can watch this video content at any moment and anywhere we can get service. This makes the content considerably more personal than it was previously.
McLuhan also wrote about hot and cold media. He labeled television as cool and movies as hot. The combination of the two on video streaming services is a complicated convergence of these concepts. Do video streaming services heat up the television medium, or cool down the film medium? It may be the latter case because McLuhan writes that “any hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one (McLuhan 24).” The movie is not on the big screen and involves the viewer physically manipulating its timeline. On the other hand, this participation may not be a strong enough argument to re-configure film as a cool media under the auspices of streaming services.
On a final note, video streaming services were not in direct competition with broadcast and cable television. However, both Netflix and Hulu are starting to produce original content for their subscribers. It remains to be seen as to whether this will affect television and film distribution, or if consumers will simply use different mediums for different purposes without significant social and ideological change.
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Carey, James. “Technology and Ideology: The Case of the Telegraph,” excerpt from Carey,
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Gitelman, Lisa. Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. Excerpt from Introduction.
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