So, back in January and February, I tried to record Agent Carter on my DVR, with the intention of watching the whole thing after its run had ended. You can imagine my frustration when I discovered that my DVR had eaten the first three episodes (I'd forgot to select "Keep All" in the Series Manager).
No sweat, I thought. Agent Carter is streaming on Hulu as well as ABC's service, so I can just watch the series there. I'll have to sit through a commercial or two every fifteen minutes or so, but that's about as long as it would take me to fast forward through the commercials on the DVR, anyway.
Except neither Hulu nor ABC has all of Agent Carter available for viewing. Even though it's only an eight-episode miniseries, and not an ongoing show, you can only watch the last five episodes online.
This strikes me as totally counterintuitive. There were probably lots of viewers like me who didn't watch the series during its original run, or only heard about it after the fact and wanted to see it. It's a show that performed only middlingly in the ratings, yet it has enormous crossover potential and is tied to two enormously popular brands — the Captain America films and the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. (And Agents of SHIELD, of course.) Why wouldn't ABC want viewers to be able to see the whole thing, especially now that it's in a binge-ready form?
I had a similar problem with The Flash, which I started watching again last week. Like Agent Carter, it's available on Hulu and The CW's streaming services, but only the last five shows are online. I caught the pilot and a couple of episodes back in the fall, but I have no way of re-watching them, or seeing the ten or so episodes that I missed in the interim, unless I buy them from iTunes or another retailer for $3 a pop. That's not an unreasonable price for one or two episodes, but it defeats the whole idea of streaming. If a show is available online, and I'm going to have to see a half-dozen commercials per episode anyway, why not just put the entire season up? (And why does Hulu Plus, a paid service, have commercials in the first place?) It's unlikely to cannibalize sales of digital downloads, or DVDs, which are flat anyway. The hardcore fans will undoubtedly watch the show within its window of availability, and will go on to buy the box set or digital download later on. This practice only serves to alienate casual viewers like myself, who are eager to get into a show, but not necessarily willing to pay extra to catch up, especially if there's a good chance that the entire thing will end up on Netflix in a few months. (DISCLAIMER: I did, in fact, buy the first three Agent Carter episodes to fill in the gaps.)
In fact, it looks like TV box sets are on their way out; last week, Al Jean announced that Season 17 of The Simpsons will mark the end of the show's availability on DVD.* If you want to see the last ten years of the series, you'll have to visit FXX's website or use the FXNOW app. But you can only use those services if you have an existing cable or satellite account (and even then, some providers don't have an agreement with the network). If you want to watch the show's first twenty seasons in their original 4:3 aspect ratio on your TV, you're SOL; only the web version allows you to choose the uncropped version. Ditto if you enjoyed the commentaries and supplements from the DVDs; without the income from the discs, there's no budget for those features (and no one seems to have figured out how to implement them via streaming, or if most viewers even care about them).
And that, for me, demonstrates the dangers of replacing ownership with access. Sure, it's great to be able to pick and choose from hundreds of movies and TV shows on your computer or streaming device for a small monthly fee. But there's no guarantee they'll always be available, or in the proper format. As I get older, I find that I'm becoming a video prepper of sorts; if there's something I really want on physical media, I'll buy it, because there's no way of knowing how long it'll be available. While I sometimes wonder if I should start hoarding Blu-Ray players, I don't expect physical media to disappear overnight, but I suspect that as time goes by they'll become niche formats, like vinyl records today, or laserdiscs back in the '90s. Already Blu-Rays are becoming artisanal, with companies like Olive and Twilight Time following the Criterion Collection's model of collector-focused releases.
What's really disappointing is seeing Internet companies exporting old models to new media. I seriously doubt that HBO will ever release entire seasons of its first-run shows online, because series like Game of Thrones are dependent on the rising expectations of the viewers from episode to episode, and the water cooler discussions, both real and online, that follow the morning after. But it's still a downer that Yahoo! didn't make all thirteen episodes of Community's season six available from the outset, since it's exactly the kind of show whose loyal viewers would devour it in one sitting. That would be an excellent way to build a rapport with hardcore fans, as well as create positive buzz for the show. But having to wait seven days between installments feels weirdly old-fashioned and retro. You almost expect Parks & Recreation to come on afterwards (not, of course, that there's anything wrong with that particular program).
Which brings us to Netflix and Daredevil. I'm almost finished with the show — no spoilers! — and despite some flaws unique to the non-TV-standard format, like a handful of Foggy-centric scenes that run on too long, I've enjoyed the heck out of it. Precisely because, in the words of the Atlantic's David Sims, it really is a graphic novel for television — as with a thick trade paperback collection, you can take in as much of the story as you like before setting it aside and going to bed. This, I think, is the real future of serial TV — no breaks, no waits, no filler. The only reason most American TV seasons are twenty-odd episodes is because it makes it possible to sell them to syndication within four or five years, though as shows on subscription-based services like Game of Thrones demonstrate, it's possible to tell a more compelling story at half the length.
So why don't more networks adopt Netflix's approach? It's probably because they feel like they still need that sense of artificial scarcity to create value, whether it's the suspense that comes from having to wait another week to find out if Jon Snow knows anything (SPOILER: He doesn't), or the urgency of needing to watch that episode of Arrow from the start of last month before Tuesday. In an era of digital plenty, these should not be concerns. The level of suspense should be entirely up to us — whether we choose to watch "just one more," or hold off until the next evening (or "sick" day).
*It should be noted that Season 20 was released in 2010 to celebrate the show's 20th anniversary, though it was a barebones set with no extras.