Is Netflix killing the video store? ... And are you helping them?

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Nearly everyone's hooked on Netflix or other online content providers. We're mainlining movies like junkies, reveling in the ability to pick a title and kick back with the popcorn without having to leave the comforts of our homes. I can see the appeal. I understand the urge. It's about ease, choice and right now it's pretty darned cheap. But there are a few dark sides to downloading movies, things you might want to seriously consider before abandoning your local video hut.

First off -- choice. To appeal to the movie lover in me, a content provider has to posses an extraordinary collection. When my Reel Women colleague Judy Rebick enthusiastically sang the praises of Netflix, I immediately logged on. First thing I searched? John Waters' films. There were none of his earliest titles, camp classics like Pink Flamingos that I adore. Nothing but Waters' newer, more mainstream Hollywood features.

Then I searched for the classic Katharine Hepburn/Cary Grant screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby. Nope. What about Sunset Boulevard? Sorry. And this past week I needed Silkwood for a rabble podcast. They didn't have that either. This means that to me, that Netflix is nowhere near as good as a well-stocked video store.

I don't mean to criticize Netflix too harshly on this count. I've been assured that they're amassing titles as quickly as they can. However, they currently don't possess a database that satisfies my interests and I ask you to seriously question if their collection will ultimately satisfy yours. More and more a great many of us are amassing a serious knowledge of film. We enjoy talking movies with friends and family and get a personal kick out of turning somebody onto something they haven't seen. Currently, Netflix has nowhere near the library of a knowledgably stocked video store and I think it will be a terrible loss to our cultural cinematic experience if we lose these spaces.

This takes me to the actual physical realm. Few things are more communal than a visit to your local neighbourhood video hut. I talked to Toronto's 7/24 Video Ryan Bureyko about it.

"We're a gathering place. Relationships have been made and destroyed here. [laughs] Couples meet over a movie and they come back five years later and they're still together. If there's a freak rainstorm people come in and look around. They're not going to do that at Tim Horton's."

Physically visiting the video shop also gives you the opportunity to converse with the staff. No algorithm that says "If you like that, then you'll love this" can match a well versed video store clerk, and I know what of I speak. I worked that gig through university and all you do is watch, talk, eat and dream movies. I would put a video store clerk up against a computer any day of the week, Jeopardy be damned.

So maybe you're saying, "Listen video snob, I don't care if the selection isn't there and a computer tells me what to watch. I just want it to be easy." Fair enough. But do you care about quality and what about price?

Your wallet. Netflix runs on the bandwidth deal you have negotiated with your ISP. If you do a lot of streaming and don't watch your rising bandwidth use very closely, you might get a very scary bill from your provider. This is extremely important for those of you with a houseful of kids who might all be watching videos at the same time in their rooms. Beware the arrival of that bill.

Kudos for Netflix addressing this point. They heard this was happening and made a move to solve the bandwidth problem. To cut streaming costs, Netflix throttled back some of their programming to reduce file size. That's great. The payoff? Increased pixilation on large screen TVs that a great many of us now have in our homes. The pixilation is especially noticeable in fast moving stuff on any screen over 32 inches.

You do have the option to watch the highest grade of movie with no throttling, but your bills will reflect that viewing choice. You can pay more for bandwidth, but Bell and Rogers (primary ISP providers used here as examples) both have definite caps on how many gigs you get -- even on the highest end packages. So watch out for that.

And also, what if you want to view new releases? If the video stores are gone, then you'll have very limited options. Rogers and Bell make a lot of their revenue from video on demand releases, those new releases cost a pretty penny to stream, and these releases won't be available on Netflix until service providers have made their coin.

This column is not an attack on Netflix. They're a great service and an important part of the shifting landscape of how we'll be viewing content in the future. I asked rabble's features editor if I could write this piece because I wanted to alert you that a change is coming, and it's a significant one.

The choice is up to you. Make a point of visiting your neighbourhood video stores, because without your patronage your viewing choices will radically diminish and a vibrant part of our communities will be assigned to memory. As Ryan told me, "It may be only a few years until we're gone."

Cathi Bond is a writer/broadcaster and a regular contributor to rabble.ca.

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