I originally wrote most of this as part of an earlier post on losing weight, as part of noting how critical good content was to keep me going while exercising. Finding several hundred hours worth wasn’t that natural for me, since that’s far more than I’d normally watch in an entire year. To make matters more interesting, since moving to Kirkland, we’ve been cord-cutters – we don’t have cable, satellite, or even over-the-air TV! What we watch is either streamed over the Internet, or purchased on Blu-ray discs.
In Toronto, the programming package we have would cost probably $100/month; it was a bulk package negotiated by our condo that we had no choice in (beyond paying $20/month more for each HD PVR compatible with Rogers proprietary infrastructure; no CableCard in Canada!). We had a gazillion sports channels, a gazillion news channels, and a gazillion movie channels. So what do we use down here, and what did I wind up watching for a few hundred hours?
For $7.99 a month, Netflix Instant Streaming really is quite the value in comparison to any traditional TV subscription. This is especially true if you haven’t subscribed to Netflix since it was first available – because then you can catch up on a number of quality titles that you might have missed.
Much is made of Netflix’s recommendation engine; they even ran a contest to see if anyone could come up with improvements to their much-optimized algorithms. And to be frank, you really do need a filter with Netflix’s catalog; there is a ton of low quality and/or low budget content on Netflix that you’ll want to avoid. But I don’t really want a recommendation engine that assumes because I liked the Avengers and the Dark Knight that I really ought to like every superhero movie out there. By far the best indicator of whether I’m going to like something or not is the IMDB rating for a film. I’ve rarely seen a film with an IMDB rating below 7.0 that I enjoyed, and it’s similarly rare that I disliked something above 8.0. Sure, I have my personal preferences, but that just lowers the bar for certain genres; a historical drama likely needs an 8.0+ for me to watch it, but I can probably tolerate a Chinese kung-fu flick down to 7.0.
Sadly, I assume due to IMDB policy, sites can’t just state the IMDB rating for a movie. Indeed, within the past few months they even seemed to have review scores stripped out of Google search results, which I find quite annoying. Unfortunately, Netflix’s own user ratings for content are comparatively much less useful; they’re not completely uncorrelated with quality, but when Transformers: Dark of the Moon (6.3 on IMDB) gets 4 stars and ranks in the top 20 action/adventure movies on Netflix, with a higher rating than Once Upon a Time in the West, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that the taste of other Netflix users differs significantly from my own. Fortunately, one useful list for recent Netflix subscribers is this one, which lists the films in the IMDB top 250 that are available for Netflix streaming.
Despite my vested interest in 20Mbit/s 1080p 7.1 content, and preference for high production values and nice visual effects, a great film is just a great film. And while Netflix didn’t have that many classic films that I hadn’t already seen, it did have several – Once Upon a Time in the West, Apocalypse Now, and The Pianist deserve the ratings they have, and are available for streaming. I wish they had more old-but-great movies like that which I’d missed – I auto-watch anything in the IMDB top 100 when available, but have still missed a few.
Another plus with Netflix is foreign content, which was rarely available on cable. I hadn’t watched that much Chinese action/kung-fu films recently; most aren’t really that great, but if you haven’t seen Ip Man, Red Cliff, or Fearless, I felt that all three of those were worthwhile (though I had seen a couple of those prior to Netflix). A post on Penny Arcade also wound up getting me to watch this sub-genre of Korean “revenge” films – The Man from Nowhere, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance. All are pretty brutal and disturbing, and not recommended if you dislike violence, but unlike the senselessly gory North American “horror” films (which I can’t stand to watch), the aforementioned films all have really strong acting and are good overall films. The IMDB ratings for these films are 7.8, 7.7, 8.4, and 7.6 respectively; and Oldboy is in the top 100 of all time. Other foreign films of note were Battle Royale (which I think is similar to, but precedes and outrates The Hunger Games), and the The Girl who Kicked the Hornets Nest (the latter two films in the trilogy weren’t worth watching, IMO).
The final film I thought I’d mention doesn’t fit the classic or foreign categories above, but I greatly enjoyed – Warrior.
Unfortunately, I’m now essentially out of Netflix content that I want to watch; there’s still some highly rated films that I intend to get to – The Twilight Samurai, Cinema Paradiso, Amadeus, The Kings Speech – but movies that are 3 hours long or are dramas that require more active brain attention are less well suited to exercise.
Okay, this isn’t going to be the ideal exercise programming for everyone, but it worked pretty well for me! Who doesn’t want to watch the best Korean Starcraft 2 pro-gamers go at it?
The GSL provided a ton of content, and was relatively inexpensive; the normal price for ad-supported access is $15 for a season, but a season has literally hundreds of matches and well over 100 hours of content. For the price of a single Blu-ray disc, if you’re into SC2, it’s a great value! Since I was doing exercise instead of playing, it was a good way to keep up with what was going on in the game (strategy in SC2 evolves over time, and it’s downright bewildering if you don’t know how to deal with some of the things that you face).
The nice thing about SC2 matches is that since a match typically lasts 15-20 minutes, it’s not too hard to find just the right amount of content for a given target amount of exercise; there are very natural stopping points as you watch through the matches in a season. With a feature film, you’ve got to decide if you have the endurance to do the whole thing, if you want to break it into two, etc.
Crunchyroll (and anime generally)
I watched a little Japanese animation in University, due to friends who were interested in it, and mostly liked it – I particularly remember liking Ghost in the Shell – but was never attached enough to make an effort to seek it out thereafter. Netflix’s selection of a few animation series got me watching again – but my colleague Pete from work pointed me at a site called Crunchyroll, which has a huge collection of anime, without ads, and in generally high quality. Having exhausted Netflix, it was a welcome boost and I’ve really enjoyed a couple of series that I’ve watched there.
I generally gravitated towards highly rated series that were semi-short, and didn’t have a ton of episodes (I like to get a beginning-to-end story where possible, not a 300 episode series like Naruto!), and highly rated. Here’s what I watched:
- High School of the Dead – I was reminded with this show that Netflix ratings mean nothing (this is among the top rated animes on Netflix). The animation in this show is highly fluid, but other than that, this show was a waste of time.
- Elfen Lied – disturbing, beautiful, haunting, and strangely peaceful at the same time; I enjoyed this a lot, though I don’t know why.
- Fullmetal Alchemist – great show, all episodes on Netflix, well worth watching.
- Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood – an even better retelling than the original (but watch the original first). However, Netflix only had 3/4 of the episodes (and it now pulled the series). So it cost me like $70 to buy the whole series on Blu-ray in order to get what Netflix didn’t have!
- Sword Art Online – the first 14 episodes are fantastic. The 11 that follow should be deleted. But despite the second half fail, I still enjoyed this series a lot overall.
- Puella Magi Madoka Magica – at a glance, you’d think I should be embarrassed to watch something like this, and after the first episode or two I thought I might be. Then you realize how deceiving superficial impressions are. A really solid 12-episode series that doesn’t stop getting better.
There’s definitely some things I miss – specifically, the Olympics, and coverage of the Grand Slam tennis matches, that are available only sporadically online, or not at all (thanks to NBC’s decision to require you to be a cable subscriber to receive it’s online coverage). Hopefully, this business model induced silliness is time limited – countries in Africa and elsewhere got the entire Olympics via YouTube.
But all in all, I definitely found enough to keep myself busy; and it’s great to see the online model of supporting niche content like foreign films or anime that have never been so easily accessible.
Best of all is how economical this model is. Over the half-year exercise program, the total cost of all this entertainment was roughly $48 (Netflix) + $30 (2 seasons of GSL) + $25 (6 months of Crunchyroll at 50%-off Thanksgiving rate), just over $100 in total for several hundred hours (excluding what it cost to get the remainder of FMA:Brotherhood). Rogers charged that for a single month of cable, and wouldn’t have provided even close to the same quantity of entertainment.