Tech and Culture

From Subscribing To Renting

The other day, V went looking for an older movie to watch with her friend, and asked me to help out. Now, we don’t subscribe to any streaming services (barely have enough time to commit to watching series), and while we do have a family TV+ subscription, it currently does not offer a movie selection.

I searched on the iTunes Store, and of course, the movie was available to rent as well as ‘buy’. It was also available as a streaming option on an MGM subscription service that was only available in the US.

The price to rent — €3.

That immediately took me back to the days of renting VHS tapes every weekend. It’s not that there was a lack of quality viewable content then, but the renting was almost always a family affair and a special event. The transition away from VHS to DVDs only exchanged one physical medium with another, but not the ritual. We continued to rent sparingly and wisely, to account for the convenience and choice of one and all.

This was also when families usually had one common television and, rarely, a second smaller television that was usually not fully utilized. Contrast this with today, when family members of all ages walk around with a video display at all times. Watching video or movies doesn’t need to be a family affair at all.

While this has given us the option to watch what we want, when we want, individualized video consumption has taken away the fun aspects of the planning, the anticipation, and the pre and post discussions that resulted from a choice of what to rent to watch. Surely, that time has to be used somehow; what better way than to watch something else.

With reduced attention spans, increased consumption, and greater production budgets, there is just not enough time to actually plan and enjoy content. Rather, we binge-watch, which is quite an apt metaphor, as consuming video content today is not at all different from subscribing to your addiction fix.

The companies that provide this endless stream of personalized content spell it out bluntly and plainly, like Netflix telling us that its biggest competitor is actually sleep.

My small experience in finding a digital rental for a movie made me wonder — what if this became the norm again? What if we stopped subscribing and instead started curating what we pulled in to watch? What if we went back to dedicating time-slots to watch series episodes and movies together.

You could immediately start to imagine the ramifications. There would be more debates, more discussions, perhaps more sharing of lessons or personal decision-frameworks, and overall, more time spent together. Is going back to renting video content such a bad idea?

The one major change in today’s digital setup is that you no longer need to buy a physical copy if you like something so much that you’d want to re-watch it. You could always rent it again. Sure, there are options to buy a digital copy, but while you could ‘purchase’ DRM-free music today, it’s not easy, or even possible in a lot of cases, to do that for video content, especially movies. I put ‘purchase’ in quotations because you only ever buy a license to watch content on a specific type of video player, and that license is malleable and volatile, and the content could also just disappear from your digital shelf.

Whereas back in the day, new releases would have extremely limited rental copies and long wait-times to get a hold of a copy, digital distribution has no such limits. Rent early, rent often. It saves you quality time otherwise spent enjoying leisure individually, and arguably even saves you money as you spend it only on titles that really excite your whole family or group of friends.

Now that we are approaching Web3, perhaps we would soon have a digital version of the neighborhood video rental store that also sells digital copies of content that you could hold onto for life or even rent out to your friends.


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