There's a really funny scene in 'National Lampoon's European Vacation' where Chevy Chase as 'Clarke W Griswold' is in a London hotel with his family and the kids are trying to work the television. They soon realise that there are only four channels and all of them were showing programmes about cheese. It's a pretty funny scene and it's true that back in the mid-eighties we only had very limited choice and everything was very cheesy!
Fast forward to today and things are very different. Cable and satellite TV viewers have long been used to multi-channel television and through Freeview, even standard terrestrial TV now offers a massive choice of channels. In fact this year, 2012, sees the completion of the 'digital switchover' with those four analogue channels (well, for the last decade or so it's been five) being consigned to history forever.
Should Clarke W Griswold have been suddenly fast-forwarded to the present, I reckon he'd be pretty impressed by what we have. However, we've grown used to such luxuries and now demand even more. I mean, why should we only watch what the broadcasters want us to? More importantly, why should we watch WHEN they want us to??
These days, the buzz-words are all around the concept of getting our TV and movie fixes when we want them. 'On-demand', 'time-shifting' and 'series-link' are all terms that didn't even exist back in Clarke's time. I remember being amazed back then when we got our first remote control without a wire running across the room back to the video!
Anyway, now I've truly exhausted the Griswold analogy (sorry, love those films) - I want to talk to you about one of the new services that have launched in the UK hoping to shake things up and change the way we watch TV forever.
Broadcast TV didn't stop evolving with the advent of multi-channel. We've also had improvements in sound with stereo and surround-sound and picture with 'High'Definition' or 'HD', not to mention the huge screen sizes we're used to now. We're also used to having a certain amount of control over when we watch certain programmes or movies by setting our PVRs like 'Sky+' or 'Virgin Tivo' to record entire seasons of our favorite series at the touch of a button. How could they possibly improve on that?
Enter 'Netflix'. A company almost synonymous with TV in the USA, but an almost completely unknown in the UK. Having launched a few months ago, it's their mission to provide us with a massive library of movies and TV that we can watch when we want, as many times as we want, all for one monthly flat fee. How is this possible? Through the miracle of 'internet streaming'.
I won't bore you with the technicalities of streaming, but basically, instead of waiting for an entire programme to download to your computer before you can watch it, you simply press 'Play' on the show you want and it will start more or less instantly. No 'download' required.
Netflix have seen massive success in the US with over 20 million customers and a huge selection of movies and TV for them to chew through. And chew they do, with Netflix being known to dominate the internet there accounting for a big majority of all web traffic.
So, now they're here and with a temptingly low price of £5.99 we can each sign up for a month for free to see if we like it and there is no contract should we get a few months down the line and decide we don't. The question is, can they shake up TV viewing forever?
Maybe. There are, as ever, a few questions which spring to mind that make me think it won't be an easy ride.
Let's start with the positives. The technology is amazing and it's not just confined to your computer. You can watch Netflix on myriad devices, from your smartphone or tablet, through your games consoles to your smart-television or PC. Streaming services have actually existed for a while in the UK, but no other company has been so successful in making it available through so many devices and it's likely that most homes will have at least one of these gadgets already.
Not only is it widely accessible, it also looks great! In the UK all broadband connections are not created equal, but if you have a connection running at least 2Mbits per second, you'll be able to watch Netflix. Mobile phones and tablets need even less due to their smaller screens. If you have a massive television and a nice fat broadband connection running at 5MBits per second or more, you'll be treated to shows in (where available) HD with surround sound included!
So how does it look? Well pretty great actually. I have a good 10MBit connection at home and have been watching programmes via Netflix for the last two months and I can confidently say most of the time I forget that the source is the internet. It looks at least as good as a DVD, although HD never reaches the heady heights of a bluray, it's not half bad. Choosing from the library is fun and convenient and the programmes play as quickly as they would if I pressed play on a DVD. I can even watch a programme part way through, stop it, pick up another device and continue where I left off with a minimum of fuss.
One feature that will please some and not others is a Facebook connection. It's possible to have Netflix post everytime you watch something. Not something I'm keen on, but it's quite handy to flick through what a friend has been watching for ideas on occasion, but others might find it hard to admit to the world what their real watching habits are like!
So far, it sounds like a big win then. For the price of a discount DVD you can choose between hundreds of programmes, watch them on a multitude of devices and share the information with your friends. What's not to like? Well, there is a snag and that's to do with the library itself.
Our friends in the US enjoy an incredible library. Recent blockbuster movies, entire seasons of the big dramas and a large back catalogue of classics and independents. Over here though, we've had some pretty savvy media moguls for some years swallowing up the broadcast rights to those things and charging us a pretty penny to watch them. Yes, I'm looking at you Sky. SkyTv in the UK is massive. They have deep pockets and they keep those who can afford to pay for the 'Sky Movies' packages very happy indeed. Netflix may have an amazing technology on their hands, where I'd say they're a good couple of years ahead of their nearest competitors, but they're very late to the game when it comes to buying broadcasting rights. As a result, there are practically no big titles from the past 12, 24 or even 36 months. Sure, there are some good films in there, but the sort you've likely already seen, or bought on DVD now they're £2.99. In terms of TV, things are a little better. If you've never heard of Breaking Bad, Dexter or Weeds - amazing programmes that achieved only cult status in the UK previously, it's worth giving Netflix a few months worth of your cash before deciding whether you're in it for the long run. Otherwise, Netflix need to get out there and start buying up rights fast, before the inital buzz around the service dies off.
The second big 'if' is something I've already touched on. Your broadband speed. Whilst Netfix have achieved much with the ability to send these streams to people via connections as low as 2mb (minimum for your TV - tablets and phones require less than half this), around a third of the country don't even have access to that and even if they do, it won't take much for a family to eat that bandwidth up leaving little for a smooth quality picture. There are also plenty of users who enjoy good broadband performance, but have strict limits as to how much data they are allowed to download each month and Netflix chomps through data like there's no tomorrow. For some, Netflix still remains a 'future' technology sadly.
At the end of the day though, Netflix NEED to get more content into their library. People will soon get over the novelty of how the service delivers it's programmes, if those programmes aren't the ones they want to watch. They're not unique in the marketplace either. With Amazon recently acquiring LoveFilm and Tesco getting in on the act buying Blinkbox, the competition for great TV broadcast rights is not only with Sky.
Stay tuned, the war over internet streaming could get interesting...