More Crystal Visions: The Blockbuster in the Sky

By Michael Stephens |

Random thoughts about my media consumption while waiting for Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince to download to my Apple TV:

It amazes me that 5 full seasons of Saturday Night Live are now available via Netflix streaming. Growing up, I’d tune in every Saturday to see if Roseanne Roseannadanna or the Coneheads were on. Now, I can check the Wikipedia article for Roseanne’s appearances and find each specific show and  the time of when the skit appeared via the Netflix player on my Mac or my Blu Ray player.

I passed a local Blockbuster today and the signs in the window proclaimed that everything was on sale, a common theme as all of the stores in my area close their doors. Fresh out of college in 1988 and still undecided about my path, I worked in a music/video store for 4 years until I found my first library job. The holidays would be crazy, with almost every movie going out. More recently, I remember the mountains of returned DVDs and VHS tapes at the Main Library every December 26th. We worked like mad to get things re-shelved. Now, via iTunes (Harry is just about ready to start playing), Netflix, and sites like Hulu, I have a boatload of choices anytime.

I’ve recently become infatuated with ABC’s Modern Family and found older episodes streaming for free on Hulu. The one or two no longer available were available on iTunes. Now, the DVR is set for the next set of new episodes, which begin in just a few days.

I’ve spent some time fine-tuning my Pandora channels, which stream wirelessly to the Samsung DVD player attached to my home entertainment center. My Fleetwood Mac channel consistently provides favorites from all those wonderful 70s bands. The Moby channel keeps me up to date with similar themed chill-style tunes. I’ve purchased a few favorites via iTunes to add to my permanent library.

Ever since we got the Samsung player, I've been hooked on Blu Ray . I’ve upgraded my Netflix to get titles in the new format and have amassed a very small collection of deeply personal favorites. I’m probably the only person in the library world that owns Logan’s Run in stunning 1080p. But isn’t this format just a way-station on the road to cloud-driven libraries of content streaming to our home and away devices of choice? 

These thoughts lead me to some random worries about this move to the great server in the sky for our entertainment media:

What happens when the SNL availability on Netflix goes away? Or Pandora shuts down the servers for some reason? I’ll still own my DRM-free iTunes songs, but most of the other content I enjoy could easily disappear into the studio-controlled ether. And what of the mythical Apple tablet, that may or may not include new media-rich, touch-enabled versions of my favorite magazines... what will change then?

What if Netflix, Pandora, iTunes, Hulu and all the other media suppliers slowly morph into a larger subscription-based everything delivered to your digital lifestream service? What then?

I'll revisit a post I wrote here in January 2006 called “Crystal Visions for the Audio Visual Department.”  With an embedded link to Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams," this post explored some of my thoughts about the changing nature of the AV department:

This will be a slow change. Early adopters will pave the way, just as it took years for the VHS cassette to come and be on the way out. Collections will remain, for those folks who keep their players, probably as long as there is demand. Will the product be available on CD or DVD? Doubtful.

So, what's the "Crystal Vision?" The Audio Visual Department of 2015 may be two spaces: 1) a vibrant space for digital creation and mashing up all of our content and room to gather and pursue our hearts' interests and 2) a space with a bunch of servers that serve out library-licensed content to library users, wherever they happen to be. 

I still agree with these ideas, but my vision for 2015 may be here sooner than I thought. The flow of digital media content through many channels is passing over the video stores, music shops and libraries in leaps and bounds to go directly to the consumer. The CD & DVD will surely fade away, replaced by whatever little storage medium comes along until streaming or ultra-fast downloads are the norm.

Almost four years later, I still see the library as an important place for certain types of content, but the focus will be more on digital user-created content and local collections. Imagine a media rich environment telling the story of a town or city via recordings of the populace available to all who visit the library physically or virtually. Imagine a library-led, user-generated film contest or song contest offering free streaming from the library's central server. Imagine a research-focused collection constantly updated via librarians and scholars on a university campus. Imagine repositories of donated content from notable library patrons.

We might also see libraries in partnership with some of the content vendors to deliver media to library users, but I’m doubtful we’ll ever see blockbuster titles and new releases via Anytown PL’s servers. That will be reserved for the companies above. 

Aaron Schmidt has pondered this as well. In a brief and eloquent post from early 2009, he envisioned a future of libraries without content.   As a person who started his library career in the Audio Visual department long before iPods and Netflix, I think the transition/evolution is strikingly clear. I weeded 16MM films, LPs, cassettes, CDS and saw the end of VHS at my library. These visions are scary and exhilarating all at the same time. What do you think the future of the AV area will be? What’s your crystal vision?