We need to have an honest discussion about streaming video services. Streaming services are convenient and fun, but it’s important to remember that you don’t own any of the shows or movies on them. Once the credits roll, they’re gone, and there are no assurances you can watch a given piece of media again a week, month, or a year from now. It’s up to the service, and you don’t get a say.
I’m not talking about Netflix canceling a promising series; it’s about what happens when a streaming service shuts down or content is simply removed without a word, as we’ve seen with HBO Max.
The bright, shiny, and convenient world of streaming media services is poison for actually preserving media. If you want to make sure a movie or show you love is always going to be available, you must have it on hand in some form that doesn’t require outside authorization. And at the rapid clip at which shows and other media are disappearing these days, you should do it by any means necessary.
Everyone needs at least one shelf of physical media.
(Photo: Will Greenwald)
Stack Those Blu-ray and DVD Discs
You can accumulate a huge collection of Blu-ray and DVDs, of course. Optical discs are generally stable and can have excellent video quality. If you’re lucky, they might even have extra features such as trailers, cut scenes, and making-of documentaries. You can keep them on a shelf, pull them out whenever you want, and nothing needs to connect to an online server to make sure you’re allowed to watch it. There are also no contractual obligations or penny-saving executives who can rip the discs out of your home.
If you want to make sure a movie or show you love is always going to be available, you must have it on hand in some form that doesn’t require outside authorization.
You can find almost anything on Blu-ray or DVD if you know where to look. There are far more official DVD releases of shows and movies available than there are on any streaming service. There are also many unofficial bootleg DVDs out there, which are vital if you’re looking for something that was never committed to a commercial release, like the Roger Corman Fantastic Four movie (high camp, but it somehow has a bit more heart than any of Fantastic Four films that came out in the last two decades). I’ve seen some wonders in the corners of comic book shops and along the back walls of conventions.
Of course, bootlegs are a bit morally gray because whatever you’re paying probably isn’t going to anyone remotely involved with making what you want to watch. Even money for secondhand DVDs isn’t exactly supporting the arts. And the cost of all of these discs can really add up, depending on where you buy them (though, if you can afford them, companies like Arrow Video, Shout! Factory, and Vinegar Syndrome offer incredible cult weirdness).
You can do this with VHS tapes too, of course, but if you want to go that route, you should find a method to transfer those tapes to a digital format, whether it’s a simple RCA-to-USB capture device hooked up to your computer, a VHS-to-DVD deck and a stack of blank DVD-Rs, or a service that will do the work for you. VHS is a poor storage medium with a limited lifespan. In fact, if you can find a tape today that doesn’t have some sort of magnetic degradation fuzziness on it, count yourself lucky.
Let’s be completely honest about how to acquire and preserve media, especially lesser-known and esoteric media: If you can find a physical copy, that’s great. Otherwise, the only answer is piracy.
Raise the Black Flag
If you can’t find what you want to watch on a streaming service or on a disc, the most realistic way to watch that film or show is to pirate it. Gird your computer’s loins with antivirus and anti-malware software, strap on a VPN, and start digging through the less savory corners of the internet.
The only reason you can watch shows like Fish Police or VR.5 is because at some point in the last 30 years, some heroes either found their masters or recorded them from TV onto VHS, transferred them to digital form, and shared them with friends (or the whole internet, through a torrent tracker). Such entertaining and rare weirdness would be utterly lost to time if it wasn’t for illegal copying.
I’m not telling you how to get this kind of otherwise evaporated content, and I’m not recommending you do it, because it’s illegal. I’m stating that it’s literally the only way to actually preserve less popular and lesser-known material. And, as we rely more and more on streaming services and physical releases become fewer and fewer, it will probably become the only way to preserve increasingly higher-profile movies and shows.
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There are many ways to fill this bad boy up.
(Photo: Will Greenwald)
Back It Up
Even if you don’t want to dip into the internet’s dark side, you might want to rip your own DVDs for both security and convenience. Optical discs can wear with use, or even outright rot. Get an optical drive and a big hard drive (better yet, get two in a RAID 1 configuration) and use HandBrake or similar software to back up your personal collection of legitimate media. Yes, hard drives can eventually fail, but once media is ripped, backing it up is as easy as connecting another storage medium and dragging the files to it.
Even better, your now hard-drive-stored media is easily accessible, so you can watch shows and film without switching discs. Get networked media software like Jellyfin or Plex, put the client on your TV or media streamer, and enjoy. That said, I don’t recommend you start sharing your rips with friends or putting them on torrent trackers, as that’s highly illegal and can get you in trouble.
Save the Art
You can’t know if that show or movie you just streamed will be there the next time you check. If you really like it, and there’s a disc-based release, buy it. Living only at the whims of streaming services, even on-demand (and DRM-laden) ones that let you “purchase” content, means there is no guarantee your favorite media will stay around.
We’ve always been beholden to studios and distributors, and the copyright laws that protect them. The bigger those studios and distributors are, the less interested they seem to be in actively preserving the media they sell. They can’t be relied upon, and actually guaranteeing that anything can be accessed in the future is in our own hands.
For more on streaming video, check out five reasons to ditch your video subscription and keep cable. Learn how to pick streaming services that fit your budget. And check out our recommended streaming video guides if you don’t know what to watch.
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