Future Tense

What if the Stream Dries Up?

We’re at the mercy of platforms when it comes to online-only shows like Transparent.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by © 2016 Amazon Studios, © 2016 Hulu and © Netflix.
Streaming shows Good Girls Revolt, The Handmaid’s Tale, and 13th.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by © 2016 Amazon Studios, © 2016 Hulu and © Netflix.

In late October 2016, the TV drama Good Girls Revolt premiered on Amazon. Based on a real-life case from 1970, the show told the story of a group of female magazine researchers who sued their employer for sex discrimination. Then, a month after its debut, the show was canceled by Amazon’s head of programming, Roy Price. At the time, creator Dana Calvo accused Price of not only ignoring the show’s good ratings but of not even watching it in the first place.

Good Girls Revolt found itself back in the news recently when Price, a friend of Harvey Weinstein’s, lost his Amazon job after becoming engulfed in his own sexual harassment scandal, which involved a female executive producer of the show The Man in the High Castle. After news of Price’s resignation broke, Eleanor Cummins wrote in Slate, “If Price really did kill the show out of distaste or spite or even a simple inability to understand its appeal, then Amazon Studios has only proven its show’s sad, central point: That ‘good girls’ who believe the system is fair and hard work will be rewarded are, in the end, painfully proven wrong.”

Historians of the future trying to understand the current zeitgeist might very well want to watch both of these shows. But will they be able to? In spite of the grassroots campaign to revive Good Girls Revolt, right now the only way to watch it is on Amazon’s streaming platform or on a special-order manufactured-on-demand DVD. But few people opt for MOD DVDs, because they both lack the convenience of streaming video and have significant durability and reliability problems. When I messaged Calvo to ask whether the company had made any commitment to keep the one season of the show accessible online, she responded, “I have no idea.” Me neither.

This problem goes beyond Good Girls Revolt, of course. Currently, The Man in the High Castle is only available via streaming. And that’s just Amazon. The Handmaid’s Tale premiered on Hulu back in April, and yet the series is still only watchable via streaming video. Ava DuVernay’s Netflix-exclusive documentary 13th was released last year, and it too is still only available for viewing online. The truth is, no one really understands how today’s popular streaming-only shows will be preserved. The public has become accustomed to seeing content come and go from streaming platforms, but we tend to assume that it will always be available somewhere online. It’s that assumption that has essentially killed the market for high-quality commercially pressed DVDs and allowed some shows to be offered only in streaming form.

In their book Re-collection, co-authors Jon Ippolito and Richard Rinehart quote an industry lawyer who, in a letter to the U.S. Copyright Office, asserted that the industry rejects “the view that copyright owners and their licensees are required to provide consumers with perpetual access to creative works.” Of course we all understand that our Netflix subscriptions don’t entitle us to watch 30 Rock or Beavis and Butt-Head in perpetuity. (Both shows are gracing Hulu at the moment.) But the problem runs deeper than the practical implications of individuals having to pay for multiple subscriptions in order to maintain access to their favorite shows. The problem is systemic. Providing “perpetual access” really requires a system that is decentralized with plenty of redundancy built in, and that’s just what streaming video platforms are unable to offer. When talking about the preservation of information, librarians use the expression “LOCKSS” or “lots of copies keep stuff safe.” If every library—or every Walmart—in the country has a copy of a certain DVD, it’s unlikely that all those copies will be destroyed or lost simultaneously. But online streaming platforms are highly centralized by their very nature, and it’s doubtful that they really have the resources to maintain “lots” of carefully maintained copies of their exclusive content.

It all comes down to money. Digital preservation is neither simple nor cheap. Google, for example, spends in excess of $1 billion per quarter maintaining its data centers. The digital entertainment status quo is dependent on inexpensive and stable sources of energy. Companies providing streaming content might one day have to make hard choices on what to save and what to let go should energy costs spike or data centers require prohibitively expensive amounts of air conditioning as the planet warms. Unlike books that can sit on library shelves for generations or celluloid film that will last for decades in cold storage, digital files behave more unpredictably and can fail in spectacular ways. For example, they have a tendency to crash and become corrupted. They can become incompatible with new hardware or software. Sometimes the wrong version can get saved over the right one, and information ends up being deleted entirely. Pixar president Edwin Catmull tells a story in his book Creativity, Inc. about the time one of his staffers mistakenly erased two years’ worth of work on the film Toy Story 2. (The movie was saved by another employee who had been working on her laptop at home.)

That kind of data loss would be an embarrassment for Amazon’s cloud computing branch, Amazon Web Services. (Interestingly, a failure of Amazon’s servers would most likely compromise Hulu and Netflix as they too rely on Amazon’s cloud computing.) Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu all have either failed to respond or declined to comment on their digital preservation efforts. But a 2007 report from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the industry’s digital secrets. Back then, the academy estimated that it was 11 times more expensive to maintain a digital master than an archival master of a film. Energy was deemed a contributing factor but even more significant was the cost of labor. Film and analog video masters must be handled as little as possible, while digital files require constant intervention to stay viable. And with human intervention, unfortunately, comes the increased chance of human error. It’s not a stretch to imagine that some unpopular or controversial television shows might one day be deemed too costly to maintain year after year and that others might be lost due to mistakes or accidents similar to Pixar’s near-catastrophe.

Preserving TV has always been a challenge, even in the analog era. A 1997 Library of Congress report outlined how, since the early days of television, rapidly changing audiovisual technology led to shows being recorded on a variety of formats. In the late 1940s, live television broadcasts were occasionally recorded on film to permit repeats and time-delay broadcasts. Then, in 1956, the industry began using videotape. Those early tapes, however, weren’t always intended for long-term storage. They were often erased and reused, and it’s easy to see why: Television—news and sports in particular—produces an almost unmanageable amount of material. The first commercial television broadcast took place in 1939, but the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences didn’t establish a television library until 1965.

According to the report, during that 26-year interregnum the TV industry displayed a distinct “lack of a preservation sensibility.” The casualties from the 1950s and 1960s are heartbreaking. The historical development that made the loss of large swaths of television history unthinkable for today’s viewer was the emergence of home video around 1980. The videotaped shows that broadcasters struggled to archive were suddenly being bought by consumers and stored in homes all over the country at no cost to the industry. While these videocassette (and later DVD) copies were hardly of archival quality, they did create an environment in which it was difficult to imagine that any product of the film or television industry could really, truly be lost.

As the market for commercially pressed DVDs has withered, there’s been no satisfying replacement for those informal backup copies. The only way for a Transparent fan to “own” a personal copy of the streaming-only show is via illegal downloading, which requires both tech know-how and a willingness to break the law. Perhaps the quirky Pfeffermans are mainstream enough to remain a preservation priority for the company, but—who knows—they might not be so popular a decade from now. Because when it comes to digital video, in greatest danger are the hard-to-monetize items, anything that “has a demand, but not an economically profitable demand,” according to Abby Smith Rumsey, author of When We Are No More. And profitability is often determined in unexpected ways. For example, Caroline Frick, author of Saving Cinema, says that Amazon executives now judge a show’s success on its ability to get viewers to spend money on Amazon’s retail site. (That may explain why Transparent has never been given a DVD release.)

Experts have proposed strategies for saving all sorts of corporate-owned digital content, including TV. Rumsey suggests that lawmakers create more legal and financial incentives to encourage the entertainment industry to deposit digital assets in libraries and archives. Ippolito, who is director of the digital curation graduate program at the University of Maine, believes that concept of long-term storage of digital media is unworkable. Rather than impose analog methods on digital media, he recommends developing strategies that best suit the digital world. For example, emulation is a preservation strategy that allows a new computer to imitate an older computer so that it will be compatible with older software. But because emulation would encourage consumers to reuse old things (say, games or videos) rather than buy new ones, the entertainment industry objects to it, citing copyright infringement.

In spite of these differences of opinion in the world of archives and digital curation, all these ideas have one common denominator: Creating tax incentives, mandating archival deposit, and reforming copyright all require action from Congress. Given the history of gridlock in Washington, we may have no choice but to continue to accept the inevitability of digital impermanence.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.