Since “The Wizard of Oz” made its TV debut on CBS in 1956, families have been making dates to snuggle around the TV with their bowls of popcorn. If you’ve been around for a while, you’ve been part of the evolution of Family Movie Night — from watching whatever (and whenever) ABC, CBS and NBC were offering to trips to the corner video store for new releases and classics on Betamax, then VHS, then DVD, then Blu-ray.
And if you’re old enough to remember any of that pre-DVD, there’s a good chance you’re old enough to be slightly mystified about the latest step on the evolution of Family Movie Night: from DVD to streaming video.
In a way, movie night has come full circle. Gather around the TV, push a few buttons — or in the old timey times, pull a knob and turn a dial, maybe adjust the rabbit ears — then sit back and be entertained. The idea’s the same, but getting there takes more prep work.
In case you’re in that gray (or darker) area of understanding and you don’t have a teenager handy to explain it all — or better yet, just do it for you — we’ve put together a primer on getting movies into your living room. We’re not attempting to cover every option, that would take a whole special supplement, which would be outdated by the time it reached your doorstep.
In search of the vanishing rental:
Movies and boxed sets of TV series are easy to come by — if you’re in the market to buy. But if you’re looking for a rental for a spontaneous movie night, your options are rapidly diminishing, going the way of those tapes we often forgot to rewind. In 1999, more than 90 percent of $13.2 billion in home entertainment spending went to VHS tapes. In just 10 years, the percentage had fallen to zero. Just a couple of years ago, it was still easy to cruise the aisles at a video store to find something that, one, everybody could agree on and, two, was in stock. You don’t have to be Steve Jobs to see where that’s headed. The movie store hasn’t completely disappeared, but the pickings are getting fewer and farther between.
Your best bet for finding video rental in your neighbor is most likely a kiosk; Redbox and Blockbuster Express are the most plentiful. A quick Internet search for kiosks within 15 miles of the 37604 ZIP code turned up 25 Redbox locations and 15 for Blockbuster. On the vendors’ websites, you’re able to locate kiosks and find and reserve specific titles before you head out. Rentals are $1 to $3 depending on demand, how you reserve it and how long you keep it. Websites: redbox.com; blockbusterexpress.com.
If you’re planning a day or two ahead, Blockbuster and mail-order video pioneer Netflix offer quick service and monthly memberships for unlimited rentals. Netflix starts at $7.99; Blockbuster plans start at $9.99.
All manner of electronic devices can be turned into mini movie screens — smart phones, smart TVs, tablets. If you’re content with a smaller screen and your computer is already hooked up to the Internet, you can skip the TV altogether. It’s just a matter of deciding where to get the video to stream and then downloading the free software.
But to stream video — movies, TV shows, YouTube — to your television set or home theater, you need to connect your TV to the Internet. The faster the connection, the better. High-speed cable is probably the easiest for most consumers. Unless your TV set is new and Internet-ready, you’ll need a device to bridge the connection. Blu-ray DVD players and game consoles are among the most popular devices. Other set-top boxes like Roku and Apple TV are made just to connect TV sets to the Internet.
If you’re thinking of waiting a year or two, Internet TV may be your ticket. USA Today reported that “connected TVs” are the pre-show buzz leading up to this week’s International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Expectations are high that Apple’s iTV (not to be confused with the $99 Apple TV) is waiting in the wings.
“I do expect Apple to make an attempt,” Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak said in USA Today, “since I expect the living room to remain a center for family entertainment, and that touches on all areas of consumer products that Apple is already making.”
Samsung, LG and other manufacturers make “smart TVs,” which come with keyboards, Web browsers and apps. Sony makes a smart Google TV. But unless you’re an early adopter with lots of disposable income, you’ll probably want to wait at least a couple of years until Apple and the other big players duke it out and the dust settles on which technology will dominate and prices fall. We’ve all been around this block a few times.
If you already have a game console — a Nintendo Wii, a Microsoft XBox 360, Sony PlayStation 3 — or a Blu-ray player, you can skip this section and go right to the manufacturer’s website and find out how to start streaming video.
But if you just want to stream movies and TV shows and you’re not a gamer, or if you have a standard DVD player, a couple of boxes are your ticket.
— Roku: This is an small, inexpensive box with a wide range of options for streaming services — Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon and HBO GO — and a long list of special interest and niche channels. Prices are $50 to $100. The company Website says Roku is the No. 1 selling streaming player. Dedicated streaming players are a small part of the streaming market, but Roku has edged out the other main player, Apple TV, according to a Nielsen survey on how Netflix and Hulu customers are streaming. Website: Roku.com
— Apple TV: Apple took its first serious crack at consumer television in late 2009 when it introduced the second generation Apple TV with a slashed price tag and more interactivity. It’s in the Roku price range ($99) and plays well with other Apple products. Options for unlimited streaming content are small compared to the Roku. Netflix is built in. Rumors have circulated about the possibility of Hulu Plus being added to Apple TV, but so far it hasn’t materialized. Of course, the iTunes store is ready and waiting for your purchasing pleasure, and YouTube and a few other channels are built in.
Stream or download?
Streaming video means instant watching, and you have to be connected to the Internet to do it. When you aren’t connected, the movie or show disappears without a trace. With iTunes and Amazon, you have the option to download a movie or TV show to a device to watch when you aren’t connected. Those two services also offer titles for rent or purchase. If you download a rental, it disappears from your account at the end of the rental. If you buy it, it stays in your account.
The big players are Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and Apple’s iTunes. Unlike iTunes, the other three offer subscription services for unlimited streaming, which make them attractive unless you want the newest releases right away and you don’t want to bother with renting DVDs or you don’t want a copy to have and to hold from this day forward.
— Netflix: Before its megablunder last fall, Netflix was probably the perfect service to ease you through the transition from a product you can touch to movies and TV shows that appear at the touch of a button and then disappear. That changed in September when Netflix broke the rule about not fixing something that’s wasn’t broken. Netflix told its 10 million customers — many of whom had blithely cruised between streaming and ordering DVDs through the mail — that the services would become separate and the price was going up. That went over like a lead balloon filled with New Coke and subscribers left in droves. Netflix decided not to separate the services after all, but the monthly cost of mail-order DVDs went up from $2 more than streaming to $7.99 more. Netflix prices: unlimited streaming, $7.99 a month, unlimited DVD rental (one at a time), $7.99 a month. To combine unlimited streaming and DVD rental, the fee ranges from $15.98 a month to $29.98 depending on how many DVDs you want at a time. If you want the newest releases from Netflix, you’re going to need the DVD package. Subscriptions are month-to-month. Website: netflix.com
— Hulu: Hulu began as a free service for streaming recently aired TV episode to computers — just PCs, though. It’s now offering Hulu Plus for $7.99 a month. Instead of offering just the latest episodes of current TV, Hulu Plus has full seasons of current and older season TV shows and a large collection of movies. Many of the TV shows have not available online before Hulu Plus added them. Hulu Plus includes ads, which the company says keeps “Hulu Plus under eight bucks, while still providing users with access to the most popular current season shows on the devices of their choice.” Subscriptions are month-to-month. Website: hulu.com
— iTunes: The Apple service has an good selection of new releases for rent or purchase — streaming or downloading — but so far, there’s no hint of a subscription for unlimited streaming. Apple products are known for working seamlessly with other Apple products, but not so much with products outside the family. If you’re an Apple purist, you have plenty of options for watching your iTunes library stored on the iCloud and more are on the horizon. New releases rent for $3.99 and sell for $14.99.
— Amazon Prime: If you’re a regular Amazon shopper and a Kindle user, Amazon Prime may be the best deal for you. For $79 a year, Amazon Prime customers get free two-day shipping on millions of items, unlimited instant streaming of more than 10,000 movies and TV shows and free rental of a Kindle book every month. Subscription is annual. Regular streaming from Amazon — for purchase or rent — is per title. Some older movies and shows rent for 99 cents. You can buy current TV episodes for $1.99 and movies for purchase start at $4.99. As with iTunes, purchased titles stay in your account for future streaming or downloading, but you won’t get a physical copy of the movie or program.