Updated on 01.06.07

Why Netflix Doesn’t Work For Us – And How We Found A Cost-Effective Alternative

Trent Hamm

Many, many people were driven to distraction by my recent offhanded claim that Netflix didn’t really work for us in the context of a plan to keep up with our various favorite television programs. In that post, I basically stated that our best plan for keeping up with programs we like and skipping out on ones we don’t like is buying and selling television series on eBay, a season at a time.

An aside: before I get started on why Netflix isn’t cost effective for us, among the suggestions for a “better” solution was a TiVo with a lifetime enrollment. Unfortunately, this plan isn’t available for new customers. Plus, you’ve got upfront costs and you’re limited on channel availability to what you subscribe to.

So why isn’t Netflix cost-effective? First of all, I need to draw a clear picture of our television viewing habits. My wife and I watch roughly an hour of television per day. We have very specific series that we enjoy watching, but we don’t really like watching the same show over and over again. In fact, we like being able to space out the episodes of a series about a week apart so we don’t get sick of it. In short, we love the depth of continuing dramas, but we don’t want to be bombarded with many, many nights of consecutive episodes.  Remember, one of our goals is to replace cable television in our lives as a cost-saving mechanism.
In short, we want to be able to enjoy long non-repetitive and sequential runs of our favorite shows, but not consecutively; we want to watch them spread out over several nights. Let me give you an example: we currently have six DVD series at home. Every night, we watch one episode of one, then the following night, we watch an episode of another one, and so on in a round-robin fashion. This enables us to be able to stretch these six box sets into about four months of television viewing.

So, let’s see what that costs, assuming we buy the series new. I’m going to assume a ballpark average of the season sets at $35 new. We’ve seen many on sale recently for $20, so this seems about right. We would be spending roughly $50 on DVDs per month if we bought them new. Obviously, this has some great advantages: we can watch whenever we like without worrying about having them at home or not.

Now, what if we bought them used on eBay and kept them? If you do some eBay searching, you’ll discover the cost for a season of a series drops by about 40% if you buy used on eBay only from reputable folks. This means that a season costs about $20 on average. Given our viewing habits, we would be spending about $30 a month on DVDs if we bought the seasons used and kept them. This is much better than new, obviously, and has almost all the same advantages.

Let’s keep going. What if we re-sold the watched series on eBay? By doing this, we reduce the cost of having a season to merely the cost of packaging and shipping: perhaps $5 per DVD set. With this program, we would be spending $7.50 a month on DVDs. We still maintain most of the advantages of owning the sets – watching what we want at our own pace – except that we don’t keep them long term. We’re also not factoring in the idea that many people love to give DVD season sets as gifts in our family, and we would be able to include these in our program and drop the cost even more. With that caveat, our cost per month would be about $5.

Now, Netflix does have some advantages over this; the biggest one, obviously, is the film catalog. However, they have one monster disadvantage that really can’t be overcome: you can only have a small number at home at once. We like to have our DVD series in rotating order so we don’t get sick of them. In order to use the Netflix “service,” we would have to change our viewing habits and compress the series quite a bit.

Let’s say we signed up for the 3 DVDs at a time plan for $17.99 a month. We get three discs worth of our favorite series in the mail and start watching them. Each disc has four episodes on it, so on the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth days, we drop discs in the mail. We then hope that we have new discs back on the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth days, which isn’t a guarantee. An even bigger problem: we’re compressing the series down quite a bit; we’re watching an episode every three days of the same series, which pushes hard against our thresholds, even if we really enjoy a series.

The conclusion? Netflix doesn’t offer a plan that matches our needs – or our acceptable cost levels. The only plans that come close don’t fit our viewing requirements very well and are much more expensive.

Netflix is a great service for many viewing patterns, but it is not a be-all-end-all service, especially with the pocketbook in mind. What Netflix really sells is convenience – and for us, it’s not convenient. Using our plan, over a year we can save about $200 versus using Netflix and be much happier with our programming.

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  1. tofu713 says:

    What about blockbuster’s total access?
    It’s roughly about the same pricing as NetFlix, but you get the advantage of the instore returns with the ability to get a new DVD right away. They even give you some free in-store rentals this month.

    I TOTALLY agree with the getting rid of cable, etc… I’ve converted to SatTV, but I’m still trying to reduce my monthly cost of watching TV with me and my partner. Gish if ONLY IPTV would come quicker… I’m kinda holding out for whatever Apple comes out with in terms of a set-top box. NetFlix and blockbuster essentially will dissappear after IPTV really gets popular and cheap enough for everyone.

    BTW. I love your blog, I share it with friends and family.

  2. Kat says:

    I don’t have cable or satellite – just plain old broadcast with a booster antenna on the roof of our house (16 channels, CBS, NBC, and Fox have duplicates) – and I don’t feel deprived. Sure, there are some cool shows, and even channels, that I’d watch regularly if I had cable, but then I’d be tethered to my TV all the time, or at least more often. There has only ever been one series that I wanted to see that was only on cable (The 4400) and it eventually came out on DVD. It’s also extremely rare for me to be so excited to see a show that I’ll have a friend tape it – the last one was the Titanic episode from the National Geographic channel where they broadcast live from under the water – it turned out to be a not very great show anyways. Really, give up cable for a month or a year and see how you do… I bet only the most diehard TV watchers or channel fanboys will suffer. (I suppose it’s a different story if you can’t get any reception with a regular TV where you are and don’t have the option to put up a booster antenna.)

  3. Kat says:

    (Okay, we get 20 channels, but 4 are Spanish, so I didn’t count those.)

  4. Ilya says:

    I agree: the TV is a waste of time. I use netflix and I get to watch good movies that I want. There are things you could do besides watching TV… 1 hour a day. Calculate that over the course of your lifetime and see that you have lost already. Quit before you loose more. And you should always remeber: television is only there because of its commercial properties, and nothing else.
    Good luck,

  5. Kristi says:

    How about your local video store? My family owns a video store and we charge $1 per rental. The benefit of getting what you want when you want it outweighs the Netflix thing unless you really enjoy giving your money to a corporation so a few people can become millionaires rather than helping support local business. I guess people are just that lazy. Soon people will just download everything so they don’t have to walk to their mailboxes. What a hassle that must be.

    Can you tell I’m bitter about corporate greed? You should write an article about saving money by spending your money at corporations vs. that little voice in your head that tells you that due to personal morals and ethics you really should spend an extra few cents here and there to support local business.

  6. MichaelVR says:

    I have been a member of Peerflix for over a year. There is no cost for membership and you trade DVDs you own for a small charge. The upside, you can keep or trade any DVD. They charge .99 per trade plus shipping. You only pay for your trading activity. The downside, the DVD you want may not be available right now because it is too popular. If there is a DVD I’ve got to have now, I can alway buy or rent it. Since becoming a Peerfix member, I got the DVD I wanted through them 9 out of 10 times. Usually with a short wait.

  7. BoDo says:

    Just give up on tv altogether. I did it decades ago, it was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. If I want to watch a movie, I can use a DVD. If for some reason I do want to watch a television show – maybe once every five years – I can watch it online. But most of the time I don’t watch anything. Frees up life like nothing else. No gabbing at the office about whatever lousy show was on the night before, and NO BOMBARDMENT FROM POLITICAL ADS/COMMENTARY/RANTS!

  8. Mike says:

    While the legality of this idea is debatable. Downloading saves you the most amount of money if you are determined to watch something.

    Simply abstaining from movies and tv saves the most money however.

  9. Susan says:

    Why not just pay $8.99 a month and only use Netflix for unlimited download onto your computer? Then you don’t have to worry about schedules and rotations. You can stream it to your television monitor with a converter. Or you can just invest in a decent flat screen computer monitor and use that as your media center instead of a living room being focused around the TV itself.

    And I agree with the small store owner. But it also sounds like you need to diversify and perhaps offer a membership of your own, delivery options, or other incentives.

  10. doron hirsch says:

    I use an online tv recorder service, which, ahhhmm, records tv programs for me, and allows me to download them and watch the without commercials.

    The commercial removal is important for us, as we do not want to expose our kids to them…or at least not to tv spots.

    I use a german service http://www.onlinetvrecorder.com/

    I am sure there is an american one too. I pay 0.6 euro per month…and it also saves me the GEZ(german tv tax).

  11. tina says:

    Netflix works for my lifestyle. I recently canceled cable $50.00 a month and my gym membership @ $34.99 a month. I love documentaries and watching programs without commercials. They also have a huge selection of yoga workouts. I get 1 yoga workout a week, and never get bored. I also like that I can watch movies, tv shows ect..on my computer everyday which is part of my monthly fee. I have the 3 a month rental for $16.99 and use it for my tv and workouts in one.

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