We Must Save Streaming Video Before It's Too Late – PCMag

A generation of art risks extinction if the companies that own streaming services don't believe their vast libraries are worth preserving. We have to act now to save it.
In 2013, I started my Ziff Davis career as an intern on PCMag’s Software team. Now, I’m an Analyst on the Apps and Gaming team, and I really just want to use my fancy Northwestern University journalism degree to write about video games. I host The Pop-Off, PCMag‘s video game show. I was previously the Senior Editor for Geek.com. I’ve also written for The A.V. Club, Kotaku, and Paste Magazine. I’m currently working on a book about the history of video games, and I’m the reason everything you think you know about Street Sharks is a lie.
As much as we like to pretend otherwise, nothing lasts forever. Even works of art meant to outlive any mere mortal aren’t immune to this fate: Libraries can burn down or close, film strips disintegrate, and Snapchat messages self-destruct. The internet gives nearly everyone access to infinitely more content than has ever been available before, but that hasn’t solved this media preservation problem, and in some ways is making it worse.
When it comes to saving online streaming video for upcoming generations, the future looks bleak. However, it’s not too late. We have the technology and the power to preserve streaming art, and we must act now. 
Our world is hostile toward the very idea of art preservation, and now the problem has come for the latest craze: online streaming video services. Once a rising star that promised to transform the entire entertainment industry, the streaming video bubble has just about burst. After reaching its peak, Netflix is on the decline. Other studios that saturated the market with competing services have now realized that they need to make money, not just spend money to woo new subscribers. 
The most notable recent example of this comes from the ongoing drama surrounding HBO Max. After recently merging with Discovery, the new conglomerate seems determined to burn down all the goodwill it’s built up over decades as it replaces prestige for reality show trash. This priority shift is so extreme that not only are nearly finished movies (like Batgirl) getting canceled for tax write-offs, but existing shows (like Infinity Train) are being removed from the service for not being “popular” enough. While we can’t advocate for anything illegal, artists are feeling so burned that they’re recommending piracy to fans. If no one gets paid either way, you might as well at least make sure your work gets seen. 
HBO Max’s dilemma is an especially extreme example, but this is the norm for video streaming services. Their libraries change all the time for licensing and broadcasting reasons. But as streaming services go from a supplemental service to our main form of home entertainment, it’s becoming more obvious and alarming as to just how powerless we are, viewers and creators alike, to save what inevitably gets lost.  
I don’t want to overly romanticize the past. Through ignorance, carelessness, or events beyond anyone’s control, it’s said that half of all American films made before 1950 are lost. Even in the second half of the 20th century, once a movie stopped playing in theaters, it basically vanished unless you managed to catch it on television. 
It was the relatively recent innovation of home video, physical media, that gave everyday viewers the chance to rent or own their favorite movies forever, without visiting a library or archive. Yet things still fall through the cracks. Not every film got a VHS release. Not every VHS release moved to DVD. Not every DVD received a Blu-ray upgrade. Mass audiences can find most of what they want to watch, but something is always forgotten.
The core problem, of course, is capitalism’s inherent antagonism toward art. Companies commission movies primarily for their ability to make money. Preserving them is also largely about profit, making more money by selling them again. Disney chucks classic cartoons into its infamous vault for a few years so they appreciate in value when rereleased. Contrast that with groups that preserve work for preservation’s sake, like the Internet Archive. It’s not a filthy hive of pirate scum and villainy; it’s an essential online library. 
This is all such a shame, because streaming services offer even more open and convenient access than ever before. For just a monthly fee, you can watch endless movies and shows, including forgotten old classics, without cluttering up your house with physical media. And oftentimes these services live up to the hype. On Netflix, I recently watched a reconstruction of Orson Welles’ previously lost final film, The Other Side of the Wind
Although this ease feels freeing, it also leaves us constricted. We don’t own anything on streaming services. If you miss a monthly payment, it all goes away (so pray hope that prices don’t get hiked too much). And as HBO Max subscribers are now learning, you’re subject to a company’s whims even when you pay.
Things aren’t completely hopeless. If you want to rent or purchase movies and shows a la carte, even in digital form, you’ll find much more to choose from compared with locking yourself to a streaming service. You can even purchase individual episodes of original streaming shows, like Disney+’s Daredevil on Amazon Prime Video. And with a media server like Plex, you can add streaming convenience to your own digital library without physical media. 
Or you can just get physical media! Owning and maintaining physical media is still the most reliable way to keep access to whatever you want to save. Today’s Blu-rays offer remarkable high-quality restorations of classic films, along with informative bonus material streaming services often lack. Holding onto physical media is like hiding in a bunker as wars rage on above.
A funny thing happened while writing this column. The video game Immortality recently launched to huge critical acclaim. The newest game from Her Story creator Sam Barlow once again tasks you with investigating video clips to solve a dense mystery. This time, however, the video clips come from fictional, lost movies and behind-the-scenes footage of its enigmatic leading lady. Beyond the main mystery, the game constantly hits on themes about the tragedy of lost art, the inherent voyeurism of the film camera lurking where it shouldn’t, and the importance, as well as the pride, of media preservation. I love playing a game so nostalgic on a device as modern as the Steam Deck.
The video game industry faces a similar preservation crisis, as we’ve talked about in the past. What’s ironic, though, is that streaming video preservation should be so much easier. Sure, high-quality video files take up a lot of server space, but they’re just videos. You don’t need to worry about emulating specific hardware or programming tricks, as you do in the gaming world. Literally the only thing getting in the way of streaming video preservation is, again, corporate ghouls who don’t see a profit in it. 
If these trends continue, streaming video is well on its way to being more lost than the smoky, 1970s-era flicks Immortality pays tribute to so well. “Vote with your wallet” has always been hollow advice, but between physical media, media servers, and alternate digital purchasing options, there are ways to show your support for a different future. Especially with companies holding such a disproportionate level of power, something must be done before it’s too late.
The freedom of streaming services must also come with a responsibility to treat libraries as art worth saving, not “content” to be exploited and tossed aside.
For more on streaming, check out five reasons to ditch your video subscription and keep cable. Learn how to pick streaming services that fit your budget. And check out our recommended streaming video guides if you don’t know what to watch.
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In 2013, I started my Ziff Davis career as an intern on PCMag’s Software team. Now, I’m an Analyst on the Apps and Gaming team, and I really just want to use my fancy Northwestern University journalism degree to write about video games. I host The Pop-Off, PCMag‘s video game show. I was previously the Senior Editor for Geek.com. I’ve also written for The A.V. Club, Kotaku, and Paste Magazine. I’m currently working on a book about the history of video games, and I’m the reason everything you think you know about Street Sharks is a lie.
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