The Netflix Divide

In homes with the DVD service, relatives wrangle over the `queue'

May 08, 2007|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,sun reporter

The telltale red envelope has arrived in the mail from the Netflix shipping center in Rockville. The movie is either Blood Diamond or The Departed. It doesn't matter. Both star Leonardo DiCaprio, a fine actor who has also been characterized as "handsome." Fair enough. But neither of these movies feature Catherine Zeta-Jones or Scarlett Johansson, and that is wrong.

The larger point is, he or she who controls the queue controls the family's home movies.

What is a queue?

"It's a metaphor for my life. There are a lot of things I want to do, but it doesn't quite happen," says Netflix member Tony Talalay of Lutherville. The queue is all knowing and revealing. "If I ever ran for office, I would clean out my queue," says his wife, Mary Talalay.

"It represents the sum of my experiences," says another Netflix member, Millersville businessman Mike Cohn.

For the uninitiated, a queue is the prioritized list of movies the 6.8 million Netflix subscribers create in their accounts. Under one popular plan, members pay $17.99 monthly for up to three DVDs at a time. When subscribers are done with one movie, they send it back to get the next movie in their queue. Sometimes, the movie arrives the next day -- catching the family off-guard. They are behind one movie. There's a sense of duty, a pang of panic. "Not tonight, honey, we have to watch The Departed."

The couple will try to watch the movie until they collapse in a snuggly heap of exhaustion -- usually around the one-hour mark. Maybe they can watch the second half of the movie the next night. All the while, the unwatched Netflix movie begs to be watched and sent back.

Welcome to another night in another Netflix household. For eight years, the DVD rental company has delivered chosen movies to homes. Rival Blockbuster has cut into Netflix's niche, but the Silicon Valley company still ships 1.6 million movies daily. Since January, more than 487,000 new customers have joined the masses in experiencing the zeitgeist of the Netflix Nation.

It's not a perfect world. Subscribers occasionally receive scratched or broken DVDs or not their first choice in the queue. Frequent Netflix subscribers have complained about being "throttled" or sent to the back of the line for the most-wanted DVDs, which are mailed to new subscribers and infrequent renters. If Netflix doesn't have enough copies of a newly released movie, the subscriber with the fewest rentals will get first dibs. It's what the company has called its "fairness algorithm."

But what of the fairness algorithm between members of a Netflix family? Does the household's dominant personality seize control of the queue? Is it the I-pay-the-bills-and-do-all-the-grocery-shopping person who decides the fate of the family's movie viewing?

Beware of hogs

Although family members can have separate queues, Netflix newbies still should be aware of the Queue Hog.

When Casey Miller of Glen Burnie and his girlfriend opened a Netflix account in 2003, Miller took about an hour to stuff 475 of his favorite movies into the 500-movie queue limit. That left 25 movies for the woman he would eventually marry.

"I admit, I went nuts," says Miller, a 26-year-old internship coordinator at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "Since then, we have gone back through and reorganized our queue."

He and Erin married last summer and honeymooned in Scotland -- but not before "burning through" three DVDs so three new ones would be there when they returned. Their love of B-horror films has kept their queue love strong. On deck this week: Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama.

In the case of the Talalays, the couple share joint custody of the queue. "We have a very civil relationship about the queue," says Tony Talalay.

They are a hardcore Netflix family -- the six-DVD at a time plan. He, an owner of a biotech company, orders Asian martial arts DVDs. Jet Li stuff. She, a magazine reviewer of young children's books, orders Baby Einstein or Wonder Pets DVDs. Nickelodeon stuff. Of course, when he's out of town traveling for work, his wife has her way with the queue.

"Poor Tony has had to survive a lot of dumb adolescent flicks lately," Mary Talalay says. "But when I'm queuing up a movie for me or our 3-year-old daughter, I try to throw him a bone."

Good news, he says. She finally bought a copy of Bridget Jones's Diary so that movie won't be queued up ever again. Good news, she says. With the Orioles season under way, he hardly watches movies anyway. Bring on the Teletubbies!

In Mike Cohn's family, he and his daughter Eva use Netflix as a cultural exchange program. They decided to watch 300 movies before she graduates from Severna Park High School. They figured that's a manageable 75 movies a year.

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