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How Streaming Platforms Reinforce Inequity in Public Access to Entertainment
Posted On December 15, 2020
Accessibility is one of the cornerstones of library service. Without accessibility, patrons from all walks of life cannot learn, be entertained, and simply exist in a space and among materials from their local public institution. Accessibility in media entertainment is increasingly becoming more difficult for libraries to achieve in a streaming-heavy world. Equitable access demands physical materials. Digital is not the panacea, but instead the great divider. Who deserves access to entertainment in the 21st century? If you ask the streaming services, the answer is only those who can afford it.

Movies and television have been a crucial emotional and mental crutch for many people during the seemingly never-ending dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Streaming content allows our stressed minds to take a break from the worries of life and be absorbed into the imaginary or the creative. Streaming outlets have become so dominating that they are sinking billions of dollars into proprietary original content. The quality of content runs the gamut from fluffy, easy-to-watch programming to complex storytelling. The problem is, only the best of the best titles ever have the opportunity for a physical DVD release, sidelining every potential viewer who has no internet connection, is living paycheck to paycheck, or doesn’t have a credit/debit card.

Libraries serve everyone. But some people do not have alternate options of service. Wealthier patrons may choose to use the library while having the ability and means to get their entertainment elsewhere. Economically stressed and disadvantaged patrons do not enjoy such a luxury. Especially in rural communities, the library may be the only place that allows people to be in touch with the wider world, free of charge, as I wrote about in 2018.

Barriers to Access

The pandemic has made painfully apparent a reality that rural and poor people have been living in for decades: High speed internet access is a privilege that should be a right. Until the federal and state governments agree—as they are increasingly doing in light of new research and harsh inequities—millions of people will be unable to enjoy the original content on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Disney+, and other streamers because they do not have the infrastructure to pipe it into their homes. On the flip side of the same coin, other people, regardless of the availability of the internet, simply cannot afford the connection or the subscriptions.

The prices of the main legion of streamers seem to rise at least every 2 years. Netflix’s most popular subscription now stands at $13.99 per month, a $1 increase from 2019. Hulu is only $5.99 if you are OK with watching advertisements constantly throughout each program. Hulu, Disney+, and ESPN+ teamed up on a bundling effort that is more wallet-friendly, at $12.99 for all three. Ads can be removed from Hulu programming for an additional $6 per month. If you only want Disney+, you can subscribe to it for $6.99, but only until March 2021, when the price increases to $7.99 per month.

On the upper end of the cost spectrum come Amazon Prime and HBO Max. Amazon Prime offers a monthly and yearly subscription, with the yearly being the overall cheaper option, averaging just under $10 per month. The catch is that in order to get that rate, it must be paid for all at once for $119. At least with Amazon Prime, subscribers also get free 2-day shipping (unless you live in a rural area, then 2-day shipping is routinely 3 days or more) and access to Amazon Music. The most expensive of the major streaming platforms is the newly branded HBO Max, at $14.99 per month. To subscribe just to these major streamers is almost $60 each month. So much for the cost savings of cutting the cord.

For people working minimum-wage full-time jobs, that number is a substantial part of their paycheck (for reference, where I live in Pennsylvania, $60 would be more than 10% of a minimum-wage full-time employee’s paycheck before taxes). Thus, the library is a great option for free entertainment content, even when there is only one copy and a likely wait. But the library is often unable to fill that important void because streamers do not release the majority of their original content on DVD.

What’s Available

Netflix recently released four original films with the Criterion Collection: The Irishman, Marriage Story, American Factory, and Atlantics. The only other Netflix film in the collection was previously the Oscar-winning Roma. I immediately purchased the first three for my library, as they were buzzed-about movies in 2019, and my patrons have every right to experience them. But what does it say about society when people without spending money are deemed as deserving only to watch the artistic and award-nominated movies and not the full scope of choices other people have? With no physical release of original content, streaming giants are now the arbiters of culture and of who deserves to experience which parts.

While able to take risks with movies and shows that other studios cannot because of budgetary limitations, streamers are steadily increasing their prices and changing their modes of operation to get out of the red. Warner Bros. announced that it will release all of its 2021 films on HBO Max the same day they open in theaters. While the other streamers have not similarly followed suit (so far), some studios have decreased their theater-only window to just a few weeks, or in Universal Pictures’ case, a mere 17 days. The reasons for a straight-to-streaming approach for HBO Max are transparent. The streamer only has 12.6 million subscribers compared to 86.8 million at Disney+, 38.8 million at Hulu, and almost 200 million at Netflix.

Despite the failure of other studios to go straight to streaming, the idea threatens the equity of entertainment for the masses. If films go straight to streaming, will they ever have a physical DVD release, since most streaming content is online-only? If the trend continues, will the internet be the sole home of the vast majority of movies and series? If any of those studios go under, will the content be sold and then disappear forever?

A Sinking Boat

An entire swath of the population that’s unable to access or afford internet and subscription services is already being left behind through the refusal of multibillion-dollar companies to devote a small portion of their budget to a traditional physical movie or series release. Even library-paid, free-to-patrons services such as Kanopy and hoopla digital cannot fill the void if they are not permitted to or cannot afford to purchase licenses for original streamer content and patrons do not have access to high-speed internet.

Beyond acquisition, it is now widely known that providers do not sell users digital content; they sell a license to view it, which they can revoke at any time. At the rate that film and series content is distributed solely by streamers, libraries eventually will be unable to maintain equity of access to entertainment media. Spending library budget dollars on streaming visual media is duct tape on the hull of a sinking boat—it’s simply not a cure-all for internet-deprived and poor communities. To make matters worse, a large portion of all content is now moving to cash-rich streaming platforms that only release awards darlings or titles with traditional distributors. Libraries are desperately trying to captain this boat to shore, all while the most disadvantaged patrons are bailing out water and still getting drenched. Streaming fancies itself as the great equalizer, when in reality, it exposes and reinforces the growing inequity of leisure and access.

Jessica Hilburn is the executive director of Benson Memorial Library in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and the CEO of the Crawford County Federated Library System. She enjoys popular culture in libraries, true crime, and audiobooks, and she is passionate about advocating for rural communities and libraries, as well as broadband equity and information access. Hilburn’s writing has been published by Information Today, Inc.; ABC-CLIO/Libraries Unlimited; Library JournalThe Oilfield Journal; and The History Press (which published her book, Hidden History of Northwestern Pennsylvania).

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