Why Netflix Needs To Bring Back Expiration Dates

Sometime in early February, I loaded up Netflix on my PlayStation 3 to watch Captain America: The First Avenger. I planned to re-watch the flick to get ready for its amazing-looking sequel, which hits theaters soon. But as I cycled through titles on My List, I soon realized the action-packed Marvel film was no longer there.

Then it hit me: The rights to the movie had expired. There was no warning. No notification. No way to know that the film had been removed on Jan. 25 and now I'd need to pay for the flick on iTunes or Amazon if I wanted to see it again.

Remember the good old days of Netflix? You know, when the streaming service had broad licensing agreements with players like Starz and Epix and sites like Instant Watcher were truly useful? You could view tons of great movies you hadn't seen before and know when those titles expired.

Now Netflix is precisely programmed to only show what you'll most likely watch, has far fewer movies in favor of TV shows, and doesn't let you know how long you have to watch things before they disappear from your queue. It's a different Netflix from a few years ago, certainly.

The biggest issue Netflix has now is that content is getting much more expensive to license, so there are less popular flicks for us to enjoy. It has countered by crafting well-made original programming like House of Cardsand Orange is the New Black, in a bid to make itself more HBO than Blockbuster. Netflix also counters with a powerful recommendation engine that steers users toward more things they might want to watch.

There's not much Netflix can do about the thinning library. Users should expect it to get worse before it gets better and you'll use Netflix not to watch the biggest blockbuster films, but to mostly watch TV shows. I'm already there, and 80 percent of my Netflix viewing is TV. In the past few months, for example, I've immensely enjoyed viewing episodes of Top of the Lake, Doctor Who, and Adventure Time.

While Netflix can't avoid the problem of a thinning library, the service could at least be more honest with its users about what is available and how long you have access to it. Netflix used to clearly tell you when a movie or show would no longer be available, but last May, they made it harder by removing expiration dates from its public API. At that time, Netflix promised expiration dates would remain on individual title pages, but that is no longer the case.

The only way Netflix currently lets you know if a title is expiring soon is if you visit an individual title page within a few weeks of its expiration date. If you just so happen to visit that page in that time from, you should see a notification that the title is expiring soon. But what are the chances you'll actually visit that page at the right time?

Now we seem to only find out that a title is about to expire thanks to the sleuths over at Reddit and articles culled from Reddit's research. For example, Redditors point out that on April 1, shows like 24 and The Dead Zone and films like The Hunt for Red October and Oldboy are goners. (For now.)

But we shouldn't have to rely on Reddit to tell us when titles expire. And without an official mechanism for knowing how long movies and shows will last, items can vanish from you queue without warning. This has happened to me several times in the past six months, with the aforementioned Captain America as the most alarming example.

I'm far from the only one with this problem. A good friend of mine told me of a terrible experience a year ago where he was in the middle of watching the sci-fi TV shows Farscape and Stargate: Atlantis, and Netflix yanked them without warning. (Just think about what happens at the end of this month to people in the middle of 24 and Kiefer Sutherlandis just about to find the bomb.)

If either of us would have had early notice from Netflix that our titles were expiring, we almost certainly would have watched them before they slipped away. In my case, I'll just see the new Captain America without watching the first one again because I'm not throwing $4 at iTunes or Amazon to rent it.

Don't get me wrong. I still use Netflix frequently to watch TV shows I've missed and to watch its original series. And thankfully, just as we lose access to great flicks and shows, Netflix continues to add select new offerings. This month, it added Easy Rider, Taxi Driver, Serpico, and several other classics I can't wait to re-watch.

But this takes me back to my problem: How long until Taxi Driver mysteriously disappears from my queue?

The easiest way to solve this problem is for Netflix to bring back expiration dates on individual title pages and create a dedicated section in its recommendations called "Titles that expire this month." Or maybe affix a red cartoon clock onto titles in your queue. Netflix certainly has the computing power to make this information available to its users.

Having this information freely available to users will build trust and make for a more pleasant experience. If I can better use Netflix to watch all the great movies and shows in my queue, I've got more reason to keep coming back to use it.

Netflix likely doesn't want to reveal expiration dates because it makes it appear the catalog is waning when it is actually in flux. Netflix also doesn't like when articles call a large batch of expiring titles a "Streamageddon." Perhaps it's the right the move from a business standpoint to hide how much content the service actually has. But it's detrimental for the service's 44 million users to be in the dark on how long they have to watch items.

Businesses that put user needs first typically prevail over their competitors. Rather than hide expiration dates and try to put on an act, Netflix could help its users make better viewing decisions each evening with a little more transparency.


This post originally appeared on Medium. Sean Ludwig is a technology writer and editor, and he has worked for publications including VentureBeat, PCMag, and Fast Company. You can follow Sean on Twitter or Google+.