Slashdot contributor Bennett Haselton writes: "Why do Netflix and a few other companies keep the DVD format alive, when streaming is more convenient for almost all users? The answer is not obvious, but my best theory is that it has to do with what economists call price discrimination. Netflix is still the cheapest legal way to watch a dozen recent releases every month — but only if you're willing to put up with those clunky DVDs." Read on for the rest of Bennett's thoughts.
I was noodling around Best Buy looking for a new laptop, and it occurred to me how inconvenient it was that I was limiting myself to models with DVD players. Either that, or thinking what a pain it would be having to take an external DVD player everywhere that I might want to watch a movie on my laptop. Then I started to wonder why this was.
Specifically: Why do movie studios allow Netflix to send out DVDs to their subscribers by mail, but not to allow the same option in the form of "virtual DVDs" that you could "check out" through their website, and stream them while they're checked out to you? Surely the streaming option is more convenient for almost everybody — no postage fees, no opening and sealing of envelopes on Netflix's end, no dealing with lost and scratched DVDs, etc.
Well, obviously movie studios would not allow Netflix to let users "check out" a virtual DVD, stream it, and then "return" it and instantly "check out" the next virtual DVD in their queue, since this effectively amounts to unlimited simultaneous access to all of their titles. (That's now Netflix's huge online streaming library works, but movie studios don't currently want to make all of their movies available for instant streaming.)
But then why not take all the movies that are currently only available as DVDs (not for streaming), make them available as "virtual DVDs", and only allow users to check out a certain number per month? This would mimic the limit imposed by the speed of the postal service, which only allows users to check out a fixed number of movies per month by mail. Netflix could keep its existing streaming library the way it is, and for the movies currently available only as physical rental DVDs, replace them with "virtual DVDs" that would count towards a user's monthly virtual DVD limit. Why won't movie studios let them do that?
Well actually, there's still a clear reason why movie studios would not allow this: a certain amount of revenue comes from impulse buys from users who decide that they want to watch The Dark Knight Rises right now and rent it from Google Play. (That's how I broke in my setup for holding a tablet in front of an elliptical while exercising, and worked out for the entire length of the movie to assuage my guilt from pigging out at a party.) If Netflix allowed instant checkout of virtual DVDs, the studio would lose the $5 or more that it makes when a user decides to rent a recently released blockbuster. (The studio would still get a cut of the money the user pays to Netflix for the virtual DVD plan, but not as much -- about $12 per month divided by about 12 DVDs.)
So, finally, suppose Netflix built this limitation into the virtual DVD plan as well — you could have a "virtual DVD" queue, with two or three virtual DVDs "checked out" at any one time, and every time you "returned" a virtual DVD, there would be a delay of 24 hours or more before the next DVD in the queue would be "checked out" to you. So the virtual DVD queue would essentially mimic Netflix's existing experience of renting DVDs by mail, except the content would be streamed, so you could watch it on any device with an Internet connection.
Now we have a fairly interesting question. If what I've described would be essentially "the same thing" as Netflix's existing DVD plan — except replacing physical DVDs with streaming, which would be more convenient for all parties involved — then why won't movie studios allow them to do that? Of course movie studios don't want their own DVD sales being undermined, but they already allow Netflix to "compete" with the studios own DVD sales by offering physical DVDs for rent, so why wouldn't they allow them to offer virtual DVDs for rent in exactly the same way?
I'm interested in questions like these which seem to have an obvious answer, but the obvious answer is a decoy which turns out to be wrong, and the real answer is necessarily more complicated. In this case, the obvious answer is that studios don't allow Netflix users to check out "virtual streaming DVDs" because it would compete with their own DVD sales. But that answer by itself can't be right, because studios do allow Netflix users to check out physical DVDs, which also compete with the studio's own DVD sales. So what could be their reason for allowing users to check out physical DVDs but not to "check out" virtual DVDs in exactly the same way, where studios would get the exact same cut of the rental rates as if they were real physical DVDs being checked out?
Unfortunately, by the very nature of these decoy-answer-making-a-deeper-mystery questions, if you ask them in a forum or on a mailing list, you'll get people spelling out the decoy answer for you with what they imagine to be the patience of someone talking to an idiot. Wherever I posed this question, I got the answer that studios wouldn't allow virtual DVD checkouts because it would undermine their own DVD sales. To repeat, the question is why the studios allow physical DVD check-outs from a service like Netflix but do not allow virtual DVD check-outs that would otherwise work in exactly the same way, with Netflix and the studios getting paid the same in each case.
One possible answer is that this is a form of price discrimination, whereby a seller tries to extract the most that different market segments will pay for essentially the same product. Student discounts for museum admission are a form of price discrimination — extracting more money from non-student adults who have more disposable income, while still gaining some revenue from poorer students who otherwise would have skipped the experience and paid nothing. In cases where a seller can't check a buyer's income level (or student status) directly, they can practice price discrimination by throwing up some sort of inconvenient roadblock — requiring buyers to clip a coupon or mail in a rebate to get a discount. Busy, high-earning professionals often won't bother, and will end up paying the higher price, while price-conscious bargain hunters will take advantage of the deal when they otherwise might not have bought the product at all. (On the other hand, a restaurant charging more for steak than chicken is not "price discrimination," because the steak really does cost the restaurant more to provide.)
In the case of a Netflix DVD plan, if you watch movies and mail them back as fast as you can on a plan that lets you check out 2 DVDs at a time, every month you could watch about 20 movies for a monthly fee of $12. If you rented the same recent releases on Google Play at $2-$5 a pop, it would average around $70.
So this could be a form of price discrimination by the studios. If you care about price more than convenience, you can just splurge for a Google Play rental whenever you want to watch a recent release, and you can watch it on your laptop, your tablet, or your phone, without the need for a DVD drive, but you'll pay around $70 per month depending on how many movies you watch. On the other hand, if you want to save money, the cheapest legal way to watch all new releases as soon as they're released to home media, is with a Netflix DVD checkout plan — but the inconvenient roadblock is that you have to be willing to deal with those clunky DVDs.
It's an odd explanation, but it's hard to think of any other reason why Netflix and the movie studios would keep propping up the DVD format, when it would be easier for them and for us to just offer "virtual DVD checkout" and stream the same content, as long as Netflix and the studios got paid exactly the same amount of money as they would make when we watch the content on a physical DVD. The inconvenience of DVDs allows Netflix and the studios to price-discriminate and separate the wealthy from the price-conscious, and extract money accordingly from each group — especially when higher-income users are more likely to own tablets or DVD-free laptops, and lower-income users are more likely to own DVD players. Can you think of any other reason why they don't simply replace all DVDs with comparable streaming "checkout" options?
Well actually, I can think of at least one other possibility. With a "virtual DVD checkout" plan like the one I described, users might feel some aggravation every time they add a virtual DVD to their queue, only to be told they have to wait 24 hours or more before they can watch it. With physical DVDs, such delays are caused by the postal service and by the physical impossibility of having a DVD show up instantly in your home. But under a virtual DVD checkout plan, despite the fact that it would be more convenient overall, the delay before you can watch a checked-out movie is imposed by Netflix (possibly at the insistence of the movie studio), so that might be where the user focuses their aggravation instead. It's conceivable that even though Netflix knows that a "virtual DVD checkout" plan would be more convenient for users, those users would irrationally come to resent Netflix more for imposing the delays on movie viewing, so the company just decides not to wade into those waters.
I'd be interested in hearing other theories, as long as people understand the question: Why movie studios don't allow movies to be streamed in a manner that mimics, as closely as possible, the experience of checking out DVDs by mail from Netflix (including, say, a mandatory delay between the time you select the movie and the time that you can watch it). Saying "Because it competes with their own DVD sales" is not an answer, since Netflix's physical DVDs also compete with a studio's own DVD sales. But there may be other answers that are actual answers, and maybe one of those is the answer.