Saturday, March 5, 2016

Netflix clues in

A moment passed in our house on Friday night, a moment we thought would be earth-shattering when it finally came, but one we ended up greeting with a shrug instead.

It was the moment we decided we'd probably be giving up our U.S. Netflix account.

Two-and-a-half years ago, when we first moved to Australia, such a thing was unheard of. In fact, our ability to continue using Netflix through a proxy was one of our lifelines that eased our transition from routines that comforted us to a new way of doing things. Netflix, after all, did not exist at all in Australia at that point, and the site was set to function only within the confines of countries where it was actually offered. It was supposed to fail entirely when you tried to access it from Australia.

This was where the proxy came in. The proxy (ours was/is called Hola) tricked the website into thinking we were still in the good old U.S. of A. We streamed as usual and counted ourselves lucky that such a thing existed.

Then in early 2015 (or was it even 2014?), Netflix landed on Australia's shores. We got occasional glimpses of how spare the offerings were compared to the U.S., as discussed here, whenever our proxy was accidentally shut off and we tried to access the site. Each time we breathed a sigh of relief that the use of proxies had not yet been cracked down upon. And the more Netflix encroached into the world market -- do I hear now that it's in 190 countries? -- the less likely it seemed that the company would worry about people illegally accessing the catalogues from other countries. Local customers would just be happy with their local Netflixes, and that would be that.

But then a couple months ago my wife reported reading an article that Netflix was, indeed, planning to crack down on proxies. I pooh-poohed it. I'd believe it when I saw it, I told her.

On Friday night, I finally saw it. Probably a lot longer after they'd started doing it than I thought, which feeds into my larger point.

We'd been continuing to watch Netflix through a proxy, or so we thought, for some time now. But in reality, it appears as though we'd been watching only stuff that Netflix was only too happy to have us watch, no matter what country we watched it in -- Netflix original programming like Beasts of No Nation, A Very Murray Christmas, and just recently, their smart and funny series Love, produced by Judd Apatow. Either that or other TV shows they were offering in both places, like Maron or Parks and Recreation.

On Friday night I finally decided, for the first time in ages I guess, to watch a movie from somewhere down in the depths of my queue. As you can probably tell from the poster above, it was Amy Heckerling's Clueless, which I had not watched since sometime in the late 1990s. (It had come up a couple times in the past week, first when Stacey Dash appeared on the Oscars, then when it was referenced in a podcast I listen to. I guess I saw it as a sign to end my Clueless drought.)

Netflix greeted the attempt with the following message:

I needn't visit the advertised address. I knew what this was all about. But I tried again anyway. A couple times.

When it didn't work, I turned off Hola and saw my Netflix My List shrink radically before my eyes. There were still some decent titles, but not the wealth of options that had just been there.

And not Clueless, either.

Oh well. I hadn't been married to Clueless anyway.

When my wife came through the room again on her way to bed, I reported what had happened and she said, "Oh well. I guess we should stop paying for our U.S. account."

Just like that, we both shrugged and the moment was over.

Just like that, a large swath was cut out of our potential viewing schedule on any given night.

But you know what? It didn't really matter. And here's one of the reasons why.

We subscribe to an Australian-based stream service called Stan, and you know what? Stan has a ton of good offerings. (We also subscribe to something called Presto, which has not as many good offerings but does have the distinction of offering Mr. Robot, which we were watching with increasingly less interest until we stopped two episodes short of completing the season. Presto is not doing well and may go by the wayside.)

Not only does Stan have a really great selection of movies -- most notably having just added Mad Max: Fury Road, which we both want to rewatch -- but we can watch it via an app on our TV, meaning no longer do we have to plug in one of our laptops with an HDMI cable. We can do that with Netflix as well, but the perceived reliance on our proxy had been preventing us, as such an intermediary does not work through the TV.

So as soon as Netflix robbed me of Clueless, I flicked on the Stan app and scrolled through page after page of offerings, just in the comedy category and mostly things I thought were pretty damned decent, until I found an acceptable substitute:


Which I then proceed to watch, and determine that it had not aged particularly well. It's now a 3.5-star film for me rather than a 4-star film, but that's not really germane to this discussion.

What is germane is the symbolism of the passing of the torch from Netflix to Stan, at least in our household. And how little that moment seemed to matter, in the moment. I didn't find what I wanted on Netflix, but without missing a beat I found it on Stan -- and didn't even have to hook up my laptop.

Oh, we'll probably still subscribe to Netflix in Australia. There are still things we want to watch that we can only get on Netflix. Enough of them that it'll probably make a new subscription worth it.

And it'll feel kind of nice to actually be above board, to not fear the nebulous menace of potential legal reprisals, to actually use the app on our TV to connect to Netflix.

And if we want an actual decent selection of movies, we'll always have Stan.

The world is becoming more and more globalized the deeper we move into the 21st century. Sometimes that's not a good thing, but more often it is. And sometimes, when it seems like it's a bad thing, it's really just a thing. And the competition offers you another thing that's just as good or better.

So the next time I'm looking for a little guilty pleasure to fulfill my movie viewing needs, and my selection of current library loans seem just too cerebral for a Friday night viewing, I'll remember Stan's page after page of offerings -- in the comedy section alone.

And I'll remember less and less the time when Netflix was my lifeline in a new and frightening world.

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