Netflix, nerd rage and Doctor Who

Columns, Featured, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Technology, Television, Top story
Colin Baker in Doctor Who (BBC)
Colin Baker in Doctor Who (BBC)

There’s nothing like a little false nerd rage to start the new year off right.

The last few weeks have seen the social web droning with indignant reactions to the possibility of Doctor Who going away – not the show itself ceasing production, for that truly would be cause for much weeping followed by armed revolt. No, the dirty rumor that was spreading was that the British sci-fi series would no longer be offered on Netflix’s streaming video service.

So-called supporters of the program cried foul, threatening to cancel their subscriptions to Netflix — who, many claimed, had “canceled” their favorite series. They imagined that this “voting with their dollars” would force the corporate giant to see the error of its ways.

Fortunately, the crisis was averted when Variety reported that Netflix’s Doctor Who catalog (such as it is) would be staying put, although other BBC content like Blackadder and Fawlty Towers is leaving at the end of January.

I’m all for a little consumer outrage. We live in times when cable companies feel they can get away with anything – because they can, more or less. But these people are not Doctor Who supporters. Fans, perhaps, but the worst kind: fans who want everything they like for free.

Free, you ask? But they pay their Netflix dues like anyone else!

Yes, but those don’t come anywhere close to what a cable or satellite subscriber with access to BBC America pays each month for the privilege to watch new programming at basically the same time as it’s made available to viewers in its native United Kingdom, in addition to video-on-demand reruns. It also doesn’t touch what owners of physical copies on DVD or Blu-ray have invested over the years to show their love for the imports. That $8 per month entitles them only to the content that Netflix has negotiated to offer through its service, not any random thing they may want. This is not what persuaded the BBC to turn its gaze across the Atlantic and give America’s devout Doctor Who fan community the recognition that was long overdue – it’s the result.

Remember when it took months, if not years, for the new Doctor Who installments to be screened in the U.S. before the program really caught on and amassed an audience that could no longer be ignored outside of PBS pledge drives? (Arizonans will also remember the old Channel 8 motto: “The Programs You Count On – Count On You!”)

Content agreements come and go. We’ve all seen it before. For a few months after I first moved to Colorado, my household was split across two states and I didn’t have a TV in my bedroom. I used Netflix on a laptop computer to lull me to sleep, and I became acquainted with A Bit of Fry and Laurie – but it disappeared before I could finish the series. This was the first time I really paid attention to the ebbs and flows of Netflix programming, but it wasn’t the end of the world. Eventually the BBC and Netflix agreed to a new deal that brought the sketch comedy back to my queue. Do you know what? I survived the intervening period – because there are more than a few other programs to enjoy on Netflix.

Don’t mistake me for a Luddite. I subscribe to Netflix’s service, but I don’t feel any ownership when it comes to the titles I’ve added to my queue. The only media I feel I own are the ones I keep safely at home, on Blu-ray disc or DVD, VHS tape, CD, or as even digital files stored on a hard drive. These are things I can touch and stroke lovingly (My precious!), even loan out to a friend or pass down to my children. Like my e-books, I have no idea at this point whether my kids will one day inherit our Netflix login like the proverbial dad’s record collection, but I strongly suspect that will not be how it works.

It’s foolish to think that one business, as dominant as Netflix has become in the marketplace, is going to replace cable or satellite or even physical media – it’s just a part of a vast menu that’s growing to include Amazon, HBO GO, CBS All Access, etc. No single one of them is going to fulfill your entertainment needs alone, not for a long time.

If you’re such a big supporter of Doctor Who, maybe you shouldn’t wait until rumors of its departure from Netflix throw you into crisis mode and force you to show your dedication, or desperation. Science fiction fans should know this better than most. If you must have access at all times to specific episodes, there are better ways to guarantee that.

Related and recommended