Netflix, Hulu, and the problem of ultimate choice


About a year ago my wife and I cancelled our cable television. I won’t go into details, but the cable company had been no end of problems for us, so we left. It was a decision we made nervously.

We were part of the first generation raised on cable television. We could both remember a time when our parents only had over the air broadcast television, but it had been years. Through college and the early years of work we’d always had some form of basic cable. Suddenly, we were going to have nothing.

But that wasn’t entirely true. We had Netflix, and along with it their instant streaming. For us that meant firing up the Xbox 360 connected to our television and browsing through movies and a sparse collection of television programs. It wasn’t exactly a hundred channels of varied programming, but we were busy with work and figured between reading and video games, we probably didn’t need that much television.

We were wrong, or at least at first. The lack of ESPN hurt badly. We’re both big sports fans, and doing without was brutal for a while. My wife had developed an unhealthy love of HGTV’s House Hunters and brought me along for the ride. We missed laughing at the snooty first-time home buyers crying about the lack of double sinks. How shall they live without? I had several shows I watched on a regular basis including Lost, and it was going to be hard waiting an extra day to see them on Hulu (especially with Facebook filled with spoiler comments). But we persevered.

Now, a year later we have both Netflix and Hulu Plus on our PS3 streaming. Both services have vastly expanded their offerings, and we literally have too much content to watch. And it’s good content–not simply direct to video offerings like Netflix streaming was in the early days. Still, this has presented a new problem–what to watch?

In an age of video-on-demand, how does one pick? The television I grew up with handled that part for me. I flipped on the television and clicked through the channels until something interested me. At two in the morning that was sometimes difficult, but it usually meant I got sucked into some obscure film on HBO or reruns on Nick at Nite. I was being forced into having at least somewhat of an open mind.

Nowadays I boot up Netflix and I simply can’t decide. Do I watch The X-Files for the billionth time? That’s guaranteed entertainment. Or am I more adventurous? Do I take a gamble on CBS’ short-lived Harper’s Island? We did and we loved it, but the truth is I never would have taken a chance on it without the recommendation from Stephen King in Entertainment Weekly. In a sea of options, I needed someone to direct me.

I see this happening with music. Growing up MTV and the radio turned me on to new bands. Now? MTV doesn’t play music and radio stations are mostly programmed by a handful of large corporations playing the same ten artists over and over. There’s YouTube, of course, but that requires sifting through hours of garbage to maybe find one decent new song. Of course, the Internet has offered up solutions such as Pandora and Both work well in my experience, but both cater too much to me. I’d go as far as to say they pander to me a bit.

You like Tom Petty? Fine, Pandora thinks you might like Bob Dylan, Tom Waitts, and U2. Not really going out on a limb there, are we guys? Of course, I don’t really blame Pandora for this. There are of course limitations to what any software can accomplish. Netflix recommends movies and TV shows I might like based on my viewing habits, but Harper’s Island never once turned up.

While Hulu and Netflix have done well at replacing cable for us, I can’t help but feel we’re missing something in the process. When we visit our parents we both find ourselves lost in general exploration of the television dial. What strange show might we stumble upon when tied to someone else’s scheduling? What lost relic might surprise us at two in the morning?

For all the promise of the digital revolution of content such as music, movies, and books, I worry the loss of the human element means we’ll simply withdraw more and more into our custom cocoons feeding us only the media we’re absolutely sure we’ll already like. In other words, what am I missing by getting exactly what I want? The narcissist in me loves the idea, but not the humanist.


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