May 1, 2019

Stream and Stream Again: Special May Day Edition

Spring is here. There’s a better than even chance that the sun is shining where you are; nature is blooming (time to stock up on the allergy meds); and at least for a brief moment, hope and renewal (along with pollen) waft on warm breezes.

We don’t really do May Day here in the States, what with its commie-hippie-fertility-tree-worshipping vibe that’s so at odds with our dog-eat-dog capitalism. Elsewhere, the old Soviet military parades are gone, but much of the world still recognizes it as International Workers Day, where workers of the world unite to binge on Game of Thrones and the latest Marvel blockbusters. There are even a few odd Europeans and Brits left who celebrate by dressing up and dancing around the maypole.

The maypole scene from The Wicker Man (1973)
"Okay kids, enough of this fresh air, let's go binge on
episodes of Sabrina the Teenage Witch!"
We’ve dispensed with the old Pagan maypole streamers in favor of net streams, but the dance is still the same -- we frolic around the great megalithic entertainment monolith, tied to it by our multiple streams, forever chasing after that elusive content that’s just one more subscription away.

Many of us have cut the cable and satellite TV cords, only to become entangled in a new Gordian knot of subscription streaming services. The cost of each by itself is reasonable, but put all of them together to get your Star Trek Discovery here, Game of Thrones there, and the Marvel Comics Universe behind the Disney paywall, and suddenly you’ve become nostalgic for the old cable bill.

Of course it all makes sense from the corporate monolith’s perspective. Why sell or rent your precious commodity one at a time when you can rope your customers into ongoing, monthly payments? Corporate suits are burning the midnight oil thinking of new recurring ways to separate us from our money: razors, clothes, food, you name it. “I’m sorry sir, that apple is not for individual sale, but I’d be happy to sign you up for our Apple of the Month Club.”

While the Fruit of the Month Club may be an easy pass, they really have us by the short hairs when it comes to our pop culture addictions. Disney is the new 800 pound gorilla in the streaming wars, pulling their content from other platforms to offer exclusively on their own service. The announced $6.99 per month cost is low compared to Netflix and other services, but it will be interesting to see if that price holds once they corral all their hottest properties -- Star Wars, the MCU, Pixar, etc. -- behind their paywall.

Even with its attractive entry price, I won’t be signing up for Disney’s streaming channel anytime soon. Because I’m a cheap old coot, I’m trying to hold the line at my outrageously expensive internet plan and the two streaming behemoths I’ve had for years now, Netflix (which just raised its rates again, daggummit!) and Amazon Prime.

Soviet leaders review a Victory Day parade, circa 1960s
The CEOs of Disney, Netflix, Amazon and Comcast wave approvingly
as their weapons of mass distraction parade by the reviewing stand.
Of course, Netflix has been moving in recent years from an emphasis on theatrical movies to original content and TV. I’ve sampled some of their original stuff, and overall it’s pretty mediocre. Every time they hike their rates I think about dropping it, but it has some shows my wife and I like, so I grin and bear it (yeah Netflix, you’re smiling now, but one more price hike, and you’ll be sorry!)

Amazon Prime is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates -- you never know what you’re going to get. B movie fans like myself can have quite a bit fun browsing through its catalog. Right now my watchlist is teeming with titles that are good candidates for the blog: Attack of the Mushroom People, Blood of the Vampire, Cry of the Banshee, Fire Maidens of Outer Space, Frankenstein’s Daughter, Invisible Invaders, Pharaoh’s Curse… it’s an embarrassment of B riches (or for some, just an embarrassment). Some of those licenses will expire, and other vintage Bs will take their place. The biggest downside is the queasy feeling I sometimes get paying dues to the online empire of the world’s richest, greediest man.

At least I summoned up the fortitude some time ago to cut the cable TV cord. We’d been bouncing between cable and satellite for years, shelling out for frequent rate hikes, tolerating poor signals and even poorer customer service, and marvelling, like millions before us, that there could be so many channels and so little to watch.

When we moved to a larger metro area, we finally cut and ran. I invested in an indoor digital antenna and a DVR for over-the-air broadcasts. In our location, the setup brings in not only the usual network channels and local news, but dozens of other channels as well. Fortunately for my interests, many of these are retro channels, including MeTV (with the beloved Svengoolie on Saturday nights), the Movies! channel, Comet, Decades, This-TV and many more. (A small downside is that occasionally the antenna needs to be adjusted to optimize the signal for certain channels. I have it hanging from a curtain rod, where it’s easy to move it back and forth to clear up the signal.)

The Citadel from Game of Thrones
Public libraries are a beacon of hope for all
those oppressed by high entertainment bills.
Another huge free resource is the local public library system. Again, living in a large city helps tremendously. Among all the branches, they get almost every title that anyone would want to watch on DVD, including blockbusters, foreign and independent films, and TV. If your local branch doesn’t carry it, you just put a hold on the title and it usually shows up within a couple days. We recently caught up with Game of Thrones by binging on library copies.

A big “secret” that people are finally discovering is that many libraries offer robust, free streaming services. Hoopla, a big player in the public library market, offers popular feature films and documentaries to stream, along with online courses and ebooks. Typically, each library card holder gets a limited number of views per month (but hey, it’s free!).

Our system also offers Kanopy, which has also been big in the higher education streaming market. Kanopy has a rich catalog of independent, foreign, classic and documentary films. For a relatively high-brow service, it also carries a surprising number of classic and B horror and sci-fi films. For example, my current Kanopy watchlist includes I Married a Monster from Outer Space, The Blood Beast Terror (with Peter Cushing), the Eurohorror classic Night of the Devils, and Sudden Fear (with Joan Crawford and Jack Palance). Like Hoopla, it’s a certain-number-of-views per month deal.

So, there are alternatives to selling your first born and your right arm for access to the movies and shows you love. Check out the local OTA broadcast situation and your local library. You may be able to stream and stream again without your wallet screaming “Uncle!”

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