The question, from a backbencher: Netflix now has the distribution rights for all of the Star Trek television series--save Deep Space Nine, inexplicably. What does this say about the future?
The answer: It means that reruns are dead. It also means that the future will be nothing like Star Trek.
Over the past forty years, Star Trek reruns and marathons on cable channels and low-powered TV stations have been a staple of American life. They are so mainstream that even Transformers: Dark of the Moon (co-starring Leonard Nimoy, in his second appearance as an evil Transformer) features a joke about them. (The clip is about two seconds long; I identified the episode--"Amok Time"--halfway through it.)
But with Netflix, why bother showing reruns of Star Trek at all? Netflix Streaming is cheap--less for a year than for cable for a month--and easier to use than a DVR. For one thing, Netflix works over devices that are slightly more portable than a 48-inch screen. (After all, there's a reason why 80 percent of online streaming is over iOS devices.) The immediacy of the delivery, and the fact that Netflix remembers where you left off, is pretty much a killer app for me.
Immediately, of course, this is going to kill the TV DVD collection. Why bother? In an earlier age, I bought the first five seasons of Scrubs and the first four of The West Wing. These days, however, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't bother--without checking, I'm unsure if either show is on Netflix, but in either case I'd wait. I watched those DVDs pretty regularly when I had a Real Job, and that meant that I've watched the average disc in that collection twice. Maybe three times, in the case of the first seasons of both.
The same calculus must apply to cheap TV content. What is going to attract eyeballs to watching Patrick Stewart make it so in a bad episode--and Next Generation had a handful of those, as you may recall--when Netflix allows us to watch only the good ones and then recommend to us new shows that we never would have heard of without the recommendation engine?
What Netflix streaming is going to do, then, is accelerate the future of entertainment. And the future of entertainment will literally look a lot like the past. Whether it's Alyssa Rosenberg discovering Cheers or me reliving my own private 1980s with the remastered original series*, pop culture in the world of tomorrow will be forever competing with the past. That's good in many respects--the future The Wire will have to be that much better, since it will be competing not just with whatever else is on but with The Wire itself--but bad in many others, since the production of new cultural content will largely become either bad remixes or new dreck. In sum, whatever orgastic visions of the future of pop culture we may once have had, we will instead be borne back ceaselessly into the past.
* I'd like to say that I am astonished by how good the remastering and re-creation of the special effects are. The cheesiness is not entirely gone, but the vibrancy of the colors and the freshness of the score is really impressive.