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Summary:

Netflix has built a sizable streaming library, with more than 20,000 titles now available. So why is it that, when the company is spending more money than ever securing streaming content, I’m finding less and less to watch through its streaming service?

netflix saved

A funny thing happened when I checked out my Netflix instant queue the other day: About a third of all the movies and TV shows that I had added over the past few years had been moved to the “Saved” section, meaning they were no longer available for instant streaming.

I’ve been an avid Netflix user for years, so I’ve accumulated quite a list of instant titles in my instant queue: about 450 at last count. So imagine my surprise when 160 of those titles were no longer available for streaming — and this happened after I had already chosen to discontinue the DVD-by-mail portion of my subscription. But it’s not just the number of movies that had dropped out of the streaming service, but the quality of the movies that were no longer available: award-winnings films like The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II, indie favorites like The Royal Tenenbaums and Fargo, even cult classics like A Nightmare on Elm Street have all disappeared from the streaming service.

At the same time that some top content has passed out of my instant queue, the quality of new content being added seems (to me) to have markedly depreciated. While Netflix’s “Top Picks for Ryan” and overall recommendations system is still pretty good at pinpointing new content I’ll find interesting, I’ve noticed that I’m finding less and less of interest in the “New Movies to Watch Instantly” that have been added to the company’s streaming library. Sure, I might check out I’m Still Here just to see what all the buzz is about, and maybe — maybe — I’ll watch 70s classics like Woody Allen’s All You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex or Dustin Hoffman’s turn as Lenny. But by and large, the new additions to Netflix’s streaming library pale in comparison to the content that just fell out of my Instant Queue.

Surely, Netflix is going through some growing pains right now. For all its success in growing its subscriber base and building a distribution platform for streaming content to practically every connected device known to man, Hollywood studios are growing increasingly wary of its market power. Some executives — like Time Warner Chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes — are openly hostile towards the company, while others are merely ambivalent about Netflix. While it is writing bigger and bigger checks to secure streaming rights to their content, it’s also eating away at DVD sales and could be prompting some consumers to cancel their cable subscriptions.

The overwhelming attitude towards Netflix seems to be that studios are willing to license their content — but for a price. And as this price goes ever higher, Netflix is having to pick and choose which streaming rights it wants to maintain and which it chooses to let lapse. All this could be what’s behind the big drop-off in availability of streaming titles that have interested me.

We’ve largely praised Netflix for being able to secure some high-profile content over the last year or so, including striking a deal with Epix to bring its streaming library to Netflix subscribers, and doing exclusive deals with indie film studios like Relativity Media and FilmDistrict to get exclusive access to their movies in the pay TV window. But all those exclusive, first-run deals come at a price; Netflix is reportedly paying upwards of $200 million a year for Epix content and another $150-$200 million for a deal it struck with Disney for access to ABC and Disney TV content.

The problem comes when access to new releases — especially new releases that aren’t particularly good — comes at the expense of library content that members still find valuable. For me, one of the key benefits of the service is being able to fire up a browser or my Xbox and choose from a wide variety of content that I find appealing. There’s still plenty of titles to choose from (including the other 280 films and TV shows in my Instant Queue), but the proportion of quality content disappearing versus that which is being added is troubling.

If Netflix hopes to keep its existing user base — and not just tack on new users — it should be aware of these issues. The company has long been criticized for not having enough quality content in its streaming library. While I was never one to complain about that, now more than ever I’m finding that sentiment to be true.

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  1. Ryan, if you are an avid user of Netflix, you would know that content ebbs and flows in the instant queue. It always has. You can even see when they will expire online.

    Do you honestly think that Netflix doesn’t know it needs to improve on it’s quality of content? Yeah, they’re probably a bunch of schmucks who got lucky.

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    1. Josh, I’m aware of the ebbs and flows of content that comes and goes on Netflix and have been watching this for a while now. I pretty frequently delete titles that appear in my ‘saved instant queue’ and know that I’ve updated it at least within the last several months.

      What struck me is that it seemed like a whole bunch of titles fell out of my instant queue all at once, and many of them followed a typical ‘type’ of film — classic, award-winning or indie movies. Maybe a contract or license ended at the end of last year, but it seemed unusual for all of these movies to fall off without corresponding high-quality new content becoming available.

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  2. I am pretty sure that the content “falling off” Netflix is due to Netflix’s stated focus in transition from lengthy content contracts (years) to month to month contracts. As stated on one of their quarterly shareholder calls they realize that the cost of purchasing content will go up but then they can better manage content cost in relation to subscriber growth.
    I believe what you are seeing right now is the blip as they transition. They will likely “fill in” some of the gaps that have appeared over time as all contracts shift to month to month.

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  3. I don’t understand this entire ruckus about NETFLIX not having a enough content. Every day I log in I find something that seems interesting to watch. You get what you pay and @ 7.99 it’s a good deal. Like the gent atop the list said, Netflix knows how you feel about the current library, but they are afraid to hit us with a price increase. I personally think they should offer different tiers of content. For me, keep me in the base tier, but for people like you who have obviously cut the cord on cable/satellite they should offer up a higher tier say @ 15.99 which is still a deal.

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  4. Netflix needs to remember the “long tail” strategies that made it popular in the first place. As Anderson pointed out, a typical Blockbuster store might have 3,000 titles. Netflix has, what, 150,000?

    You can’t just focus on a few titles and not expect someone else to come along and knock you off your high horse.

    That said, the studios need to stop being so greedy, or they’re going to kill off the golden goose. Like iTunes, Netflix represents one of the few places where people are actually PAYING for content.

    Screw with it too much, and it’s back to the torrents.

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  5. I think the streaming only price already includes the value of users expectations of Netflix being able to continue to expand the catalog of content. If Netflix proves that expectation false then they will have a big problem.

    A quick scan of the top 100 shows only 10 are available to stream. When I view new releases only 5 of the 25 titles displayed are available. So the streaming catalog is roughly 10%-20% of the top/new release portion of the catalog.

    But $7.99 is 80% of the price of the $9.99 plan. That proportion doesn’t seem worth it to me. Even when compared to the most popular 3 disc plan it’s 40% of the price for 10%-20% of the catalog. Which is why I say that the current plans price already includes the expectation of a better catalog than they already have.

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  6. And on top of their horrendous streaming library, only a fraction of it is streamable in HD.

    I’m about to cut the cord alright. (from Netflix)

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  7. oh please, come on, netflix is only a $8/month service, you can not expect everything. If you want a comprehensive/on-demand library try one of those $80/month services from your cable/satellite provider.

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  8. Oh please, for $8/month you can not complain about the streaming selection. If you want a comprehensive streaming/on-demand service try those $80/month plans from your cable/satellite provider.

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  9. [...] I get a lot of e-mails about expiring titles, and Ryan Lawler on GigaOm discovered that a third of his streaming titles disappeared and wrote about it, Netflix's Big Problem: Keeping Quality Content.  [...]

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  10. Chickenlittle Friday, January 21, 2011

    Welcome to the brave new world. We’re only at the tip of the iceberg here, and you’re already noticing the imapct of corporate contracts on your ability to watch what you want. The more we move to a purely on-demand, download society away from a physical media, the more this will come into play. The good thing about discs is that when you physically have one in your possession, you know you can watch it. Now I’m not arguing that there are advantages to downloads, but for as much as it has the potential to allow us to watch what we want when we want it, it also allows them to restrict what we watch when they want, whether it be for contractual reasons, bandwidth, etc.

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