Monday, December 7, 2015

Streaming Video Showcase: Warner Archive Instant

Oh, how I don't want to give out a grade today.

I have subscribed to many different streaming video on demand services over the years, and while I have been fiscally invested in all of them and thus interested in getting as much value as possible, I don't know if I have been as emotionally invested as I was in hoping Warner Archive Instant would be great--not just good, but great.

The service debuted with a high price tag (10 bucks a month) but a promising mission: to fill a niche by serving fans of classic, vintage, and obscure film and television, the kind of deep catalog programming Netflix was already abandoning. At first it looked like it would either be the next best thing to a TCM on Demand OR at minimum a vast library of old-school programming, a place where eventually everything in the Warner Archive DVD catalog would stream.

At first.

The selection has steadily declined over the past year, with seemingly more titles leaving than coming in. For weeks and weeks, there were under 5 films each in the Noir Pre-Code categories--hardly the kind of selection classic film lovers want.  Most content that has been added lately is either more recent or--and this is worse--recycled content that has already been on the service and left. All in all, I love what is there on WAI, but there just isn't always enough of it to justify the premium price it commands.

The Roku channel has never become fully functional. Often updates to categories don't show up right away, or at all, and that's bad news when movies and TV series are leaving so often. Titles are still visible in your watchlist even after they are yanked. Navigating the service is smoother than it was at launch but still not great.

After a long drought of new content, the  channel finally added a handful of Golden Harvest movies from Hong Kong right before Comic Con. I suspect it was just to give the Warner reps something to tout at the Con, but at least it was something.  Unfortunately, all titles disappeared a few months ago, and maddeningly, the "Showcase" category remained on WAI even though the movies weren't there.

Let me back up and talk about some of the great things about WAI: Everything is uncut, commercial-free, and I believe everything is closed-captioned (though many of the captions are non-verbatim and/or inaccurate). There isn't a lot of functionality with the Watchlist, but at least there IS one, and you can generally resume a video if you start if and have to stop for some reason. These features should be standard for every pay service, let alone one charging 10 bucks per, but give WAI credit for offering them.

I love, love, love the fact that I can see rarities like "The Man from Atlantis" and "The Man from Shenandoah" on here, but the impact of having them on demand is lessened when they can disappear with relatively scant notice. I understand why "Adventures of Superman" and "Man from U.N.C.L.E." left right before they started running on ME-TV, but why did "Flo" go so quickly?

More transparency about removal dates would be a big help. I'd say most TV series last at least a year, but that is by no means a sure thing. I was delighted to see season 1 of "Alice" show up last year--not just because I wanted to relive that terrible show (Hey, I watched it as a kid), but because unlike much of the other content on WAI, it was a Warner Home Video release (at least at first) and (I hoped) signaled the expansion of the available programming.

However, "Alice" left soon thereafter, and lately the programming has not been as imaginative as I hoped. The TV side is OK, though I wish there were more of it. I could occupy myself with the obscure TV  every month, but for the price, I want to see a better selection of films.

I want to see all those obscure programmers on Turner Classic Movies that aren't on any home video release. It used to be a thrill to see a batch of new movies added to WAI, but now it's mostly "reruns" of not-so-obscure movies, and there aren't as many rarities. it no longer feels like everything on Warner Archive will eventually show up, even if for a little while. It feels like they prepped a few hundred movies for the service and will just keep rotating through them.

I wish I could give this a better grade. I think there are some people who mean well involved with this SVOD service, but perhaps they are stretched too thin to make a difference. Layoffs and reorganization at Warners may have inflicted a huge hit on Warner Instant. It's telling that the Warner Archive Podcast, which used to feature the hosts sharing their Instant picks, hasn't mentioned WAI in a long time.

Now more than ever, with Netflix running as fast as it can from anything "old," there is a niche for a streaming video service focusing on vintage material. Unfortunately, given the disappointing content in 2015 and the high price tag, I have to give Warner Instant a C-, and I am not currently a subscriber. WAI could win me back by dramatically boosting its offerings--and letting them run longer--or by dramatically lowering the price.

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