There has been some recent debate about physical media v streaming media lately on the internet, such as this thread. I haven’t actually seen much of it myself but I’ve heard about it and that just made me think about how my viewing habits and media consumption have changed over the years.

So many aspects have changed since the early 80s, and not just the things you would think of such as screen sizes, storage devices and control systems. Content, delivery platform, media format and viewing habits have all changed are being affected by each other. Whole new businesses and marketing strategies have sprung up based on recent developments. But first let’s take a look back at my viewing habits back in the day.

My earliest TV memory is of just having three channels and no remote control. There was no channel hopping because A) there weren’t many channels and B) it was tiring to keep getting up and down off the sofa! People all watched the same shows. It was great having chats on Monday morning about the latest episode of The A-Team or Knight Rider. The zeitgeist around who shot JR in Dallas was incredible. Everybody was watching it or at least aware of it. Viewing figures for shows were sky high.

Watching movies was very different too of course. You would go down to the local video rental store, peruse the shelves, find some box art that attracted you, read the blurb and rent it for the weekend. You would then proceed to watch the crap out of that video tape for 2 days.

More choice, more control
Remote controls quickly became a thing and channel hopping began. If a boring bit came on, or an ad break, you would flick through the other channels trying to find something to watch. This became even more of a thing after Channel 4 was launched in the UK in 1982, bringing the total number of channels to, well… 4. Here’s a good pub quiz question. Whose was the first voice to speak on Channel 4 in the UK. The answer? Paul Coia. (His parents used to live in the street behind me growing up in Glasgow, don’t you know). You can see him recording it below.

But then, around 1989 or 1990 Sky TV and BSB (British Sky Broadcasting) appeared. Here in the UK we had often heard American actors and actresses talk about this mysterious ‘cable’ in sitcom episodes that we watched. We never really understood just what ‘having cable’ meant, until we started to have satellite TV. Some of my friends had Sky TV, but in my family we started off with BSB. They soon merged to form BSKYB and our choice of channels grew yet again. There were niche channels about computing, travel, sport, 24 hour channels about news, round the clock movies with no need to rent VHS tapes. Viewing habits were certainly changing.

More choice meant less zeitgeist. Not everyone was watching the same shows. But to be honest, there still wasn’t a huge selection of TV shows of high quality. That was still to come. But channel hopping really came into its own at this stage. Channels now numbered in the dozens, if not the hundreds, and you could flick through them for hours.

For me personally, the next big change wasn’t until nearly 20 years later with the advent of DVR, starting with Sky+. Recording shows on your home box. Pausing live TV. This was a game changer. Recording stuff was just like having an easier VCR in your box, but pausing live TV meant you didn’t have to always sprint to the kitchen during ad breaks, or stress about missing the start of a show. You could even fast forward through the ads, or go back and catch something that you missed if you had looked away. We were starting to become more free of the TV scheduling and much more in control.

I guess the next big thing after that was streaming. This has perhaps only really become mainstream over the last 5 years or so. Netflix are obviously the king of streaming in most people’s eyes. They dominated the market early on and it’s incredible to watch how they have become a massive provider of great original content now. One that allows shows and films to be made that wouldn’t often get greenlit elsewhere. I would say at least 80% of my family’s screen watching right now is from Netflix.

Streaming services like Netflix have also introduced the other phenomenon that changes how we consume shows. Binge watching. Not only are people watching whole seasons at once but providers are actually launching a whole season on the same day rather than weekly. This is such an interesting approach. It’s great for viewers to have this power of when to watch stuff. The TV schedule is now totally out of the window. The only slight downside for me is once again the feeling of zeitgeist, of watching what other people are watching and having a shared experience, is now almost totally gone, as people can have finished the season days or weeks before you if they were able to binge it quickly. But to be honest it’s more rare that people are watching all the same shows anyway these days as there are just so many good quality shows out there. It’s incredible.

One slight issue with Netflix is that I find the interface a bit clunky. It can be hard to find what you want sometimes. It does try to recommend stuff that it thinks you would like but that ends up often with you just browsing within an echo chamber of all the same sort of stuff. It can be hard to discover new things. Netflix secret codes, however, can certainly help with that, so check that out if you haven’t already.

As I said, in my household we pretty much mostly just watch Netflix now. We don’t really watch much terrestrial TV any more. If there are any good BBC shows we normally watch them on iPlayer, and it’s probably only the odd reality show (often just the finals) or other live events like charity specials and sporting events that we watch on terrestrial. You do have to wonder how long the traditional TV schedule will last. I wonder if we will ever end up with just one terrestrial TV channel called ‘Live TV’ where it only broadcasts live events.

Physical Media v Streaming
The bigger dilemma for a geek like myself is this big debate about what do you keep on physical media and what do you stream. I’m finally able to let go of a lot of things and be ok with just watching some of them on streaming. I know they will be there for me on streaming if I ever need to reach out for them. Things like our Friends DVD boxset. I’m happy letting that go and just dipping into it on streaming. West Wing DVD boxset. Gone. What I do tend to keep on DVD or Blu-Ray are things that I like to collect, such as all the Marvel Studios movies, or movies that I want to see in 3D (I’m one of those rare people who did actually get and keep a 3D TV) or movies that have special features that I’m really interested in. Movies on streaming platforms never come with all the special feature that you get on physical media. Also for example if it’s a 4k Blu Ray it always looks nicer than a 4k streaming version. So I have several films like Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, Mad Max Fury Road, Gravity, Lord of the Rings, Interstellar, Titanic, Avatar 3D, Top Gun 3D, all the Star Wars films etc that have interesting deleted scenes of documentaries. On top of that I do like to keep some personal favourites on DVD or Blu Ray that I know I will return to regularly such as WarGames, Back to the Future and Commando. They’re like a comfort blanket that I can’t let go of. I just feel better having them on physical media.

Heck I still have a pretty decent VHS collection, so I certainly can’t say I’m totally letting go of physical media, but I have certainly cut back. I don’t need to see rows and rows of DVDs on my shelves just to satisfy my collecting urge. I am now very selective. I do love my box art though.

Streaming is so easy now that it is very reliable and omnipresent, but there is one concern I have. I have already seen some films that I love, be deleted from Netflix. Libraries on streaming services are becoming more unpredictable. There is talk of Disney launching a new streaming service which would likely become the sole place to stream all the Star Wars and Marvel movies too. To be fair I will probably subscribe to the Disney one as they have such an awesome catalogue of content, but if every studio and more companies launch streaming services of just the IPs that they own, the online libraries are just going to become more disparate and you won’t be able to watch what you want unless you subscribe to them all. We’ll see what happens, but for now I’m still making sure that I have all my favourite ones in my possession at home. And you know what? I really do love my box art, so you can blame people like Drew Struzan too.