Monday, December 12, 2016

Streaming Showcase: So what's the deal with the "new, improved" Warner Archive Instant?

It is new. Is it improved? Yes, in the sense that it now seems to be adding new movies and TV shows about once a month. That's no great accomplishment, but it's an improvement over WAI going months without new content.

The bottom line is WAI is still nowhere near where it should be for the price point, $10 a month. Now that Netflix has raised its cost and other SVOD services are in this neighborhood, WAI doesn't seem quite as expensive as it did a few years back when it debuted, but nor does it seem like a good value. Its emphasis on vintage material is refreshing given the lack of attention Amazon, Hulu, and especially Netflix are providing older movies and TV shows.  Yet the bang for your buck is not there right now, and the functionality of the site does not justify the premium cost.

The site redesign emphasizes BIGNESS--giant pictures of the titles so you can, uh, see them better? The fact is  it takes longer to browse titles because of this, especially on the Internet version. Months after the relaunch, there is still no "Newly added" category to show you what has just appeared--perhaps because they are ashamed of their lack of activity?

The good news is they have not started dropping titles by the dozens again. The bad news is you have to go to the website to see what IS leaving soon because that isn't an option on Roku. I do see an improvement in the closed captioning, and major credit goes to WAI for offering that service. There is a watchlist, but you can't manipulate the order of your titles, and there is a resume watching feature, but it doesn't always work.

When I started my free month trial, I encountered numerous technical issues and buffering problems. After the first week or so, for whatever reason, those things tailed off, but for much of the trial, I had problems viewing anything in prime time hours. By the end of the month, I was more confident I could sit down and watch a movie without buffering. Unfortunately, some of the individual titles have glitches. For example, Doughgirls has A/V sync issues, and at least one or two other movies had problems as well. Judging from social media comments, I am not the only one to experience this, and I don't know what is being done about it.

That kind of problem would not be a big deal if WAI cost, say, 5 bucks a month, but for 10, this channel should get its act together. Content-wise, the story is similar. The channel is promoted like a Turner Classic Movies lover's dream come true, with hundreds of classic Hollywood movies for your streaming on-demand pleasure. There are hundreds of movies, but they're not nearly all from the classic studio era. Many are post-1970, and many are TV movies.

It's harder than it used to be to see what the breakdown is because the new WAI no longer has decades categories, but the eyeball test tells me there are way less 1930s and 1940s pictures than I personally would like to see. To its credit, WAI has begun adding "new to the service" movies since the relaunch, but the majority of the catalogue is still content that had already been on there.

Right now, there are 12 titles in the Film Noir category, and that includes two titles from the 1970s (one of which is comedy-noir The Late Show). The "Pre-Code" category is now "Forbidden Hollywood," and it offers 20 titles (Son of Kong appears twice, for some reason), which sounds better, but there is a distinct lack of rare or surprising movies--something that stands out as you look through the whole service. Where are all the 60-minute RKO programmers that TCM runs in the mornings?

The TV section is more impressive if you are into some of the rarer stuff. Currently Cain's Hundred, not yet on DVD and rarely seen since its original broadcast, may be the most impressive title. As a Dr. Kildare fan, I appreciated the chance to finish watching season 2, but I have been waiting for a long time for season 3. Is it coming? Who knows? There is absolutely no transparency with WAI nor any sense of when and what will arrive at any given time. Still, TV lovers will probably have an easier time amusing themselves for a month with something "new" on WAI, while the average hardcore movie buff will likely have seen many of the films that are currently available.

Here's how WAI can make me a subscriber:

1) Fix all the technical issues
2) Make the site and the Roku channel easier to navigate and use

It seems to me 1 and 2 are more than fair and should be done by any channel charging for its product.

3) Greatly expand the material available at any given time
4) One way to do so: Stop taking away so much content.  If WAI had retained most of its TV alone, it would be worth its price because there would still be rarities like The Eleventh Hour, Sam Benedict, and Hawkins. Instead, WAI rotates all its TV content, which is understandable if the goal is to protect DVD sales but is frustrating because Warner is not licensing this content like a Netflix, but it owns it all.
5) Lower the price to 4.99 a month. I could put up with all of these issues, including the rotating of content and the relative lack thereof, if WAI didn't charge so much for the service.

There are some growing pains (yet no episodes of WB-owned Growing Pains, I might add) and apparently "a new team" is running things at WAI.  My advice: Go for the free trial if it sounds interesting. Otherwise, sit out and wait for the people running this thing to work out the bugs. It has been confirmed that Filmstruck is NOT going to be a product for classic movie lovers of the studio era, but for the indie and arthouse crowd, so right now this is kind of our only hope. Here's to WAI improving enough to be worth a monthly sub.

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