Film and TV

How Netflix Threatens the Sanctity of the American Family

My family "consciously uncoupled" from Netflix's DVD plan a year or two ago. Many of our entertainment choices of the non-streaming variety come from discs I've ripped to a hard drive playing via media server on our TV -- leaving me with the dilemma of what to do with three or four hundred shiny drink coasters, but that's a lament for another day. The rest of our viewing options come from Netflix Streaming.

The service's other problems aside (Surprise price hikes! Streamageddon!), Netflix's means of handling multiple user accounts is what I'm referring to here. Because if you have kids and are trying to manage viewing options on certain devices, you may be facing a threat to your family unit on a scale not seen since the rise of single motherhood.

As the Chron's Dwight Silverman helpfully informed us last year, certain devices acquired the capability to use different profiles. Unfortunately, if you're still using archaic video game technology like the Nintendo Wii (released eight whole years ago) or even certain TVs, that functionality didn't make it through. I know this because I have a Wii and one of those "other" TVs.

Still, none of this would be an issue if not for the little harvesters of sorrow I call my children. Don't get me wrong, I'm thrilled to live in a time when it's possible to stream Flicka 2 and Tyler Perry's Temptation directly into my living room. But as it stands, the interface issues (and the haphazard programming, mustn't forget that) has almost made the Netflix experience a non-starter for my wife and me. Why, you ask?

Crossing The Streams Without multiple profiles to choose from (the PS3 and XBox 360, for example, ask you to select one at start-up), Netflix adds everything anybody has watched on its service and displays your results. And if your kids watch Netflix more than you, you may be faced with this when you fire it up one Friday night after the kids have (finally) gone to sleep:

"Why not just use the 'search' button, you lazy ass?" I'll tell you why: because thanks to the previously mentioned well-documented licensing issues, it's impossible to keep track of what's available, meaning I could potentially spend a valuable 30 minutes of All Anal MILFs TED Talk viewing time fruitlessly searching for nonexistent titles. Bad enough that my kids may have watched Caillou, but now the recommendations are completely hosed, which brings me to:

References Available On Request One aspect of Netflix that used to be enjoyable was the recommendation function, in which a complex algorithm presents a selection of suggested viewing choices based on your decision to drunkenly watch Dracula 3000. Allowing your kids on Netflix ruins that too, because it only presents a dozen or so recommendation threads. Though it can lead to some amusing examples of cognitive browsing dissonance:

Martha Speaks is, in many ways, far more disturbing than American Horror Story. This also brings up another problem:

I Find Your Lack Of Parental Guidance Disturbing My cable provider has parental controls (which we enabled as soon as I realized half of the listings for any given On Demand search were along the lines of All Anal MILFs). Even Netflix on the Wii asks if you want the "For Kids" version when you turn it on. Individual profiles in Netflix use age selection options to limit what types of programming you see. But unless you're re-logging in (with your email address) every time you start up, there's nothing really to stop a kid from selecting whatever profile they want. And if you're using Netflix on a device that doesn't allow profiles and your kids know how to work a remote (as mine have for several months), there may be issues.

Example: one of the things Netflix does to make your viewing life easier is to allow you to add titles you're particularly fond of to its "Instant Queue." This displays at the top of the screen and makes it easy to jump immediately to your favorite shows. It can also lead to the following:

My kids are almost five, and as thrilled as I would be for them to eventually bask in the joys of Bryan Cranston's performance and Vince Gilligan's nuanced storytelling, I don't believe I'm prepared for them to experience Breaking Bad quite yet.

Finally, some of you may advise us to not let our kids watch TV. To them I say this.

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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar