I must admit that I was fascinated by the news involving Netflix over the past few weeks – A loss of 200,000 subscribers, potentially more by the mid-summer, price increases, an ad-supported subscription tier, and a bevy of shows canceled. But I was more fascinated by another streaming service’s struggles: The outright shutting down of CNN+ only a month after its launch.
I only initially heard about the CNN+ thing because I saw the headline gloating about it on the TV they have set to Fox News at the gym, but more research into exactly what happened there has really intrigued me. A month? They put all of that money and effort into this thing and it got canned within a month? The story behind its failure isn’t purely a story of a subscription service that couldn’t reach anybody – though they struggled with that, only 150,000 people in a two week span, something like 2% of what Disney+ was able to get in its first day alone – there was also some corporate meddling and it seemed to get caught up in the mix of a couple of conglomerates merging.
I don’t particularly care one way or the other about the downfall of CNN+ personally, outside of finding it kind of amusing that CNN thought there was a wide-scale long-term hunger for a subscription service dedicated only to the output of the Cable News Network and had to shut it down at what seems like a record pace – barely a month! Quibi and Seeso both lasted longer.
Both pieces of news on these two services – Netflix finally reaching its peak and now finding itself on a downward trajectory for what feels like the first time ever and the immediate death of CNN+ put together got me wondering:
First, if something with as much power and money behind it as CNN+ could fail and stop existing entirely, couldn’t Netflix? I know it seems ridiculous to think about, and I don’t think it actually will happen that one day there just won’t be a Netflix, but I figured that CNN+ was in the same sort of boat, there was so much money behind it that they couldn’t possibly just let it fail. I figured it’d be like Fox Nation, where no matter how many people were or weren’t paying for it (and for the record, we don’t know how many people are paying for it, Fox hasn’t really said, which makes me assume that it’s not a flattering number) it’d be kept breathing for the sake of some deeper ideological project.
Secondly, assuming that the pretense of something as large as Netflix could ultimately falter so significantly that it gets bought out or shut down: What happens to all of that stuff on there?
CNN+ didn’t have a lot of original stuff shown on it, and while I wasn’t interested in any of it, I am interested in where it ends up going. Does CNN throw “Land of the Giants: Titans of Tech” on a YouTube channel somewhere just so the effort in funding and creating it doesn’t go fully to waste? Or do they just sequester it somewhere in their vaults and nobody ever sees it again? With only a few works created and obvious data that shows that people aren’t hungering for them, CNN probably doesn’t need to fret about it that much.
Netflix, on the other hand, has a lot of stuff. A lot. A lot of stuff that they spent a lot of money on, too, an infamous amount of money on. A lot of that stuff has been very successful in every form – financially able to drive subscribers in, critically acclaimed, and culturally relevant… and just as much has gone in the opposite direction. In fact, probably more has gone in the opposite direction.
As a case study, let’s take Netflix Original Movie that I have actually seen: Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru
I watched this originally for the sake of science. The peak period of my watching Netflix was around 2015 and 16, between the ages of 20 and 21, when Netflix originals were beginning to have genuine cachet. I can remember talking to people about Making a Murderer and Stranger Things in public at that time, it was necessary to watch the hot new thing on Netflix if you wanted to keep up with your friends – And Netflix was putting out a lot of hot new things, basically weekly. In the summer of 2016, they were operating at a clip of about one big movie release per week, and I was fascinated by that output. There was no way, I figured, that all of that was relevant or even good. Some of it must’ve been weird, I figured, and I could be the one to dig it up and show people. So, I made it my mission to watch the new Netflix movie every week (I did this for like two or three months, stopping because I got bored with it and I had better things to do than watch things like Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru. Very little of it was interestingly weird, most of it was good in a boring, unremarkable sense.) One of those weeks happened to coincide with the release of Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru.
Very few people remember or care about Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru. There are only about two-thousand reviews on Letterboxd, most of which are neither one way nor the other about it. It’s a mediocre pop-doc about sort of an interesting character, it probably functionally serves as an infomercial for one of Robbins’ leadership seminars. It did seem like the people who attend the seminars get a lot from them, but I also don’t imagine that the director was going to show people who didn’t get anything from them.
But my point is this: Who wants this? Obviously, if Netflix was going to go completely down, or get absorbed, or have to sell their content library off somewhere, where does this go? Where does Tony go? We can assume there would be bidding wars by big-hitters like Apple and Hulu for Stranger Things and The Crown and their other big hits, but what about all of this other stuff? Who wants that? Who wants their garbage? Do they package it together in bulk and see it thrown out to sea on one of the lower-rung streaming services like Pluto or The Roku Channel? Does it just get forgotten?
All three of those options (The picks of the litter sold off individually, bulk sales of entire libraries, and some stuff just getting lost) have happened in the past – Upon the downfall of Seeso in 2017, their shows were bought up basically piecemeal by other streaming companies: Hits like My Brother, My Brother, and Me and Hidden America with Jonah Ray went to Crunchyroll, others went to Starz and PlutoTV, and some of it just… isn’t really available anymore by legal means. I can’t speak for illegal means. It’s possible that the entire six-episode run of Michael Ian Black’s Debate Wars is floating around on a torrent site somewhere. The bulk selling off of shows happened with the death of Quibi in 2020, everything there (and there was a lot, some of it apparently good) went to the Roku Channel where it can be viewed for free now.
This brings me to the phenomenon of Lost Media as it relates to the internet. For those unaware, Lost Media refers to media works of which there is evidence of their existence at some point in history, but they are unavailable to the public. A good example of this that people might know is the photographs or videos taken by “The Babushka Lady” of the asssassination of John F. Kennedy. We know that some photographs were probably taken, there are pictures of this woman with a camera up to her face, but those photographs have never publicly surfaced. Most examples of this are much more benign, it’s stuff like television shows listed in newspapers that we don’t have recordings of, music only given limited releases on cassettes that probably were lost or destroyed in the interim years, flash video games saved on websites that never were properly archived, things like that.
From this phenomenon, there has spawned a relatively large internet community dedicated to searching for pieces of lost media. What’s interesting about that community to me is not that they do this – I find it perfectly interesting myself and they’ve found quite a lot of stuff – it’s more about the efforts they take to finding the stuff (which has unsurprisingly crossed some lines a few times – which will unfortunately happen when you get a lot of heavy social internet users coming together towards a common goal) and most significantly what the community deems worthy of searching for. There are hierarchies to lost media, some of them are more interesting to the people who look for it than others. For whatever demographic reason, their interests tend to skew towards children’s media (I have a theory for this that I’ll probably just put in the accompanying Substack post), TV commercials, and internet media. A good example of this is the Lost Media Wiki’s “Hunt” efforts, which cover… basically those three things. I am not making a judgment of them for this, I am interested in those things as well, but take it as exemplary of my larger point about Netflix and CNN+: If that stuff gets lost, the people who care about finding that sort of thing probably will not care about finding those specific things.
So, let’s say that Netflix were to actually go down (again, this in all likelihood would not happen, but we’re acting under the assumption that it could) and their best stuff was sold off to the highest bidder and the rest of the stuff got dumped on to somewhere else, maybe it even never gets picked up because there’s so much of it and nobody’s willing to pay what whoever controls Netflix’s library by that point wants. Maybe a lot of it (like the Tony Robbins documentary I mentioned earlier and its other forgettable ilk) all goes the way of Debate Wars with Michael Ian Black – Probably picked up by somebody, allegedly still accessible on Amazon somewhere in the world, but uncared about and unavailable to most people. Functionally “lost media”, though technically in something of a gray area closer to “inaccessible media”, left there mostly by apathy – Media Garbage. That is the term I’m going to try to coin here.
How much of that is there on Netflix? How much media garbage is there? If the platform goes, what do we do with that stuff? There are works with a lot of money and effort behind them created by and accessible on Netflix right now that, if the company continues on a downward trajectory to the point that they can’t recover, is going to be collectively thrown out, just completely forgotten, and yes, potentially lost. High-quality video storage and server space costs so much money and if a company doesn’t find that stuff profitable, it can and will just get rid of all of it: I personally had videos uploaded on Blip.TV and GameTrailers.com that are just gone forever now because keeping their data hosted online was considered a waste of money to whomever ended up in possession of their data. This could happen to Netflix, this could happen to Roku or PlutoTV or any of those too, there’s no divine mandate that keeps them in existence. I doubt that anything will really be left out to sea like that, there’s probably enough money in keeping all of it hosted to somebody that it will be there, but once it stops being profitable, it’ll be in jeopardy again all the same. I’m talking about a timeframe of decades here.
Media distributors and creators have always gone out of business throughout history. The difference there is that all of this is ephemeral now. When Cannon Films went under, your VHS tapes of Death Wish II didn’t stop existing – But those artifacts don’t exist for streaming services. You can’t find DVDs of most big shows anymore.
Take for example a piece of effective Media Garbage I found a few months ago: Josh Peck’s Laugh Camp. I don’t remember how I found Josh Peck’s Laugh Camp on Archive.org, but considering that it has fewer than 400 views on Archive right now (and I cannot imagine that my post here is going to drive any clicks towards it), most people care neither one way or another of it being lost nor found. Josh Peck’s Laugh Camp is just as much a piece of media garbage as Debate Wars with Michael Ian Black has proven to be, but since it was pressed to a Tiger VideoNOW disc for its distribution, one which could be ripped to a computer, it’s now viewable, something like seventeen years after its release. These streaming services aren’t leaving physical artifacts like that, so when they go, they go.
One good example of this phenomenon is ESPN’s Miles to Go, a 2019 docuseries about Les Miles’ tenure at my beloved Alma Mater, which was pulled from public view off of ESPN+ when allegations of sexual harassment came out against him, leading to his firing in early 2021. It’s probably (but I even doubt that) floating around through some illegal method, but if it isn’t, who cared enough to hold on to it? ESPN certainly has no need to re-release it, and the Les Miles era at KU wasn’t anything to really remember anyway. I don’t think anyone cares to watch that, but I know that personally I’ve watched VHS tapes of sports documentaries from 30+ years ago, I even put one of them on YouTube. There was no upload of that online anywhere before I put it up last month. Rock Chalk Jayhawk was, in some definitions, Lost Media – Available on a small VHS release but not available in any digital capacity. It was available because it was put on physical media, lost due to apathy, and recovered because it coincidentally fell into the hands of someone who wanted it to be archived online. That can’t happen with Miles to Go. We are at a bizarre point where it is easier to watch that specific documentary on KU Athletics from 1984 than it is to watch a documentary on KU Athletics from 2019.
Forty years from now, if a dumb motherfucker like me (and there are so, so many dumb motherfuckers like me out there, probably only more to come) reads on whatever they use for Wikipedia by then that there was a documentary produced by ESPN about the Les Miles era of KU football – Will they have any chance at finding it? I only found Rock Chalk Jayhawk because it was at a thrift store in Lawrence for five dollars – Kansas Athletics found no desire to digitize it and put it online at any point apparently. There’s no DVD release of Miles to Go for anyone to find in 40 years, and neither ESPN nor KU will want to make it available again. It’ll just be in a vault, on some old hard drives. This big-budget, ESPN produced documentary could potentially be less accessible (and in a way already is) than this small VHS release documentary received.
A huge chunk of Netflix could very feasibly see that fate – Lost by apathy, declared garbage and treated as such. But now, there’s no physical release for those who might want to find it in the future to find it on.
Media (particularly film and television media) in the past has built itself up as a sort of house of cards (I know that’s a show. For the record I know that’s the name of a show from Netflix. It wasn’t a pun, intended or otherwise.) – It’s more accessible now than ever, but it can all just disappear, and if nobody cares to archive it now, it might just not get archived.
Paradoxically, we are in the middle of a moment when entertainment media is pumped out more than ever before, but we’re also setting ourselves up to potentially lose more of it than ever before. It’s simultaneously more available than ever and more ephemeral than ever. That is a bizarre dilemma.
I suppose the takeaway that you should have from this (I’m sure in your opinion, I’ve lost the thread by this point – and frankly in my own opinion I’ve lost the thread at this point) is that we’re setting up a strange future where future Lost Media Wikis might be dotted with big budget works put on highly successful platforms and watched by thousands of people that just might have been forgotten. The impetus to archive those works in that regard has been put on those platforms – Platforms that are supposed to make money, and once archival stops making money, then there is a good chance we’ll lose it.
So I guess my point is: If you want to guarantee you’ll be able to have access to some piece of media in the future, provided its not a top-shelf, top-tier thing… Find a way to have it yourself. If that means some illegal, copyright infringing activity, then… I, specifically, didn’t tell you to do that, specifically. But it might be what you have to do.
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