ATG Original: Streaming Changes the Rules of Video Distribution-Will Libraries Win or Lose?

by | Aug 13, 2020 | 0 comments


by Nancy K. Herther (writer, consultant and former Sociology/Anthropology Librarian, University of Minnesota Libraries)

Early in my consulting career my “fun job” was working occasional evenings at one of the Minneapolis Public Library branches.  And as a research consultant in high tech, answering many of these patron questions was a stretch, but not unlike a yoga session.  I remember one preschooler wanting a picture book about an elephant who likes to play jump rope. I knew many of the usual subjects: Elmer, Babar, Horton and Dumbo…..but she’d already had those and apparently none of them jump rope. So, I sat cross-legged with her on the floor going through the range of over-sized picture and board books looking for something that would be “good enough.” 

I came away with the greatest respect for librarians who not only have to know the authors, literature and age-appropriateness, but also how to inspire children when what they really want seems hopeless. Working with researchers and academics, on the other hand, is strategically a piece of cake. They know their needs and seek resources that will explain, inspire and support their curriculum.  They aren’t looking for just any film on some topic or general information that may have nothing to do with the goals of the course. In most cases, they actually use compelling snippets to stimulate discussion rather than watching entire films.

Most media requests in higher education are needed to meet a clearly expressed need. For example, Salt of the Earth for a class segment on Mexican-American workers protesting the unsafe work conditions and unequal wages and the impact of this on their families; or Crying Earth Rise Up used to stimulate discussion of the struggles of tribal nations confronting the power of corporations and government when it comes of uranium mining on tribal lands. 


Today, we have a huge and thriving distribution system for streaming all types of creative media – from old-time television shows to classic films, documentaries from all types of producers to the growing importance of short-form mobile videos such as TikTok. However, these are not easily available to institutions today that would allow the same access to content that individuals are being given. 

Commercial streaming services  – such as Netflix, HBO GO, HBO NOW, Disney Plus, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Sling TV and Fubo TV have taken on even more importance during the pandemic by taking on the releases of new films due to COVID restrictions on movie theaters. However, none of the now standard channels for video offer any realistic type of service plan for institutions. Other than YouTube, whose content unpredictably can be purged without notice, libraries have little availability to a growing portion of today’s critical video resources. Availability of DVD versions is continuing to shrink as an option for video distribution. 

Kanopy is one of the largest library vendors of films for academic libraries. “Our pricing model,” Kanopy’s website explains, “offers cost-per-play for public libraries and patron-driven acquisition for universities to provide the best value on the most unique, diverse, and thought-provoking streaming service available.” Other service providers include:  AVON (Academic Video Online) from Alexander Street Press, Ambrose Digital Streaming Video, Docuseek2, Films on Demand from Infobase, Filmakers Library Online and Swank Digital Campus.

Finding tools are still  developing as definitive sources of availability.  JustWatch is one  commercial site that allows you to search for videos and learn whether the content streams or is available for rent or purchase. Another source  is Reelgood, which allows you to  “browse, search, and watch TV & Movies from Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Prime Video, Free Services and 50 more.” However, few titles are available without existing contracts with individual streaming services or by buying the DVD versions of some title.


From earliest times, compelling storytelling has been used to convey information, sharing cultural values and belief systems. Prehistoric cave art used pictures of game animals and other visuals in ways that researchers still work to understand. Aesop’s Fables created over 2000 years ago used animal characters to demonstrate moral lessons, many of which still have key value today. Beginning with the first picture book, Orbis Pictus, combined pictures and words in compelling ways that remain essential formats today. Maps and other materials, along with music collections, motion pictures, audio and gaming, have followed. 

University of Buffalo librarian Lori Widzinski, writing in SIMILE Studies in 2001 noted that “In the past 75 years, media librarians have witnessed and dealt with a steady and often bewildering progression of new media forms and formats, as well as a rapidly expanding content universe. Media collections and services in libraries have therefore evolved at a rapid pace.” In a 2010 Library Trends article, Widzinski adds that “The greatest growth [in media collections] occurred from the 1960’s through the 1990’s. It is not surprising that this coincides with the expansion of higher education in general, as well as the consumer electronics market.”

However, not all change or emerging technology has been beneficial for libraries. With print books and magazines, libraries were able to claim “ownership” of the product and provide these to users or share them with other libraries as needed.  However, the internet and other technologies – and the rise of Napster and new legal protections such as the Copyright Act of 1976 and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act – have radically changed this media distribution system.  

Library media vendors have risen to the task of filling this gaping hole in library collections with systems designed specifically for use in classrooms and for research in libraries; however, even these represent a small segment of this growing media marketplace. Title collections remain incomplete. Titles can be added and, more significantly, taken down with little notice.  ADA accessibility is yet another potential roadblock for libraries.  

To further confuse distribution, many individual producers and production companies today are working to create their own distribution channels in order to better control access and profits. The losers in this process have been individuals and libraries which are less able to access or afford pricing for individual titles. Author and producer Stewart Till warns his readers, “if the market place is troubled now it is only going to get more fragmented and competitive.”


Long-time Arizona State University media librarian Deg Farrelly wrote extensively on the rise of media since the mid-1970’s advent of the VHS format which “revolutionized the ability of libraries to collect and loan film.” The media revolution continues to expand and broaden with new tools and applications – particularly during the COVID isolation – which make any effort to truly contain, index, gather or make these works available today or for future generations as seemingly hopeless as counting the grains of sand on a beach.  However, even with this explosion of content, finding, indexing and making this available today or in the future seems impossible.  

Locating media in such a growing and complex environment where traditional film (educational and theatrical) is now challenged by streaming services and apps that provide all types of information, news and entertainment can prove difficult. The challenge for individuals in using/sharing/cribbing some of these sources is one problem.  For libraries and institutions, the problems of getting needed access for educational and research purposes has become a critical issue. One key resource, Educational Media Reviews Online (EMRO), is now available as an open access resource for educators; however, reviews address only two key aspects, content and quality, in acquiring video today.


“Distribution is the point where important decisions about films are made,” media scholar Roderik Smits writes in his 2019 book Gatekeeping in the Evolving Business of Independent Film Distribution, “where gatekeepers negotiate access to international markets and where they exert power and control over the sort of access given to specific films.”  

Peter Berg

COVID and technology are creating options that give film producers, distributors and other key stakeholders virtually unlimited control of the distribution, sale and the availability of video. As director Peter Berg recently explained to Bloomberg BusinessWeek. “We’re living in a radically different time in terms of how people appreciate viewing content; whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know. It’s just a real thing.” In the case of his recent film, Spencer Confidential – and with theaters closed due to COVID – it was released on Netflix and in just the first month 85 million households had paid to view the movie, far more than would have been possible with traditional first-run theatrical releases. 


Stewart Till

With the rapid demise of DVD and new implications of media “ownership,” the key role of distribution services has become even more significant for libraries. “Not so long ago content distribution used to be very orderly,” film producer Stewart Till explained recently. “Historically, audiences were made to wait patiently in line as films were released through the various media channels at fixed pricing,” Till explained in a recent web commentary. “Films were first released theatrically, followed four months later on DVD, then pay TV, and then bringing up the rear 30 months later, came free TV. It was a logical progression, an inverted pyramid based on convenience and price. First, theatrical, the most expensive and inconvenient (set times, dates, fixed locations, etc.). An opportunity to view a film that offered the most deluxe (pun intended) experience — big screen, shared experience, surround sound. At the other end of the process, many months later the viewer watched the film for free on a small screen, albeit interrupted by commercials, from the convenience of their own homes.”

“As an aside,” Till continues, “it was always perplexing to outsiders that film had an underlying economic paradigm in which a $200 million budget blockbuster had the same ticket price as a film with a $20 million dollar film production with lackluster appeal. A model at odds with other industries where the retail cost of a product is usually tied to two factors — the cost of manufacturing and the appeal of the product.”  In fact, a 2017 study published in USA Todayfound that in 2016 box office sales reached a record $11.37 billion, an increase from 2015 which saw revenues at $11.14 billion. By 2019, the figure was listed as $42.5 billion global revenue.

However, today things have changed radically. Media & Entertainment Services Alliance notes that Netflix, Amazon and similar streaming services “have a captive audience. Just as a restaurant doesn’t advertise its menu, Netflix knows its audience will visit, browse and select. They don’t even have to chase, or even announce, audience levels or ratings success. ‘All’ they have to do is keep the customers happy and subscribing.”

Pricing has become another issue that frustrates libraries.  Pricing for DVD’s to individuals tends to be the lowest, public libraries next with academics, K-12 schools and corporations being charged the highest rates. When asked, sales staff continue to assure me that public libraries can’t afford more and they want to see widespread coverage of their labels.  Public schools, after the infamous Disney lawsuits, can no longer assure that titles will only be used for “educational” versus “entertainment” purposes and thus pay more.  Higher education, salespeople assure me, can afford to pay more and, thus, support the ongoing future of their companies.  Clearly, they haven’t followed the difficult financial realities of colleges and universities today. In many cases, DVD continues to be the most affordable option for libraries.


A recent article in Film Quarterly represents the conundrum faced by streaming services for libraries and academics this way:  “Kanopy is not just like Netflix, or any other subscription video on demand service (SVOD), even if its innovation is applying a Netflix-style user-friendly platform to the library market.” The article goes on to note that “recently, an increasing number of scholars have become aware of a simple fact about the service: university and college libraries do not pay a flat fee like individuals might for Netflix, Hulu, or the (now defunct) FilmStruck.”

Kanopy, claiming to serve 85% of large colleges and universities in the U.S., leads all other key institutional streaming video vendors (including Films on Demand and Alexander Street’s Academic Video Online) that dominate the academic library marketplace.  Fluctuations in pricing, usage limitations built into contractual agreements and the too-frequent take-downs of individual titles affect any institution’s ability to reliably serve needs of their customers.

“A goal of Kanopy’s is to democratize important films, and make them easily accessible to students and campuses,” explains Kanopy’s CEO, Kevin Sayar. “In the case of academic streaming, filmmakers and film distributors have the expectation that their film will be accessed by potentially thousands of students at any given time, and price their films according to those expectations.” 

“When adding films to our catalog we often try to find the films that are widely used and recognized in the academic space, mostly because of the extensive effort it takes to add any given film,” Sayar continues. “That being said, we do try to find the middle ground between films that are already a part of course curriculum, and films that have the potential to be used in curriculum based on discoverability. Librarians often find themselves trying to field multiple requests for access to films that aren’t available through streaming options. Oftentimes platforms don’t have the flexibility to sign these films because the demand isn’t there. Kanopy accepts requests for films with the goal of providing access to meaningful films at every level. In some cases, we can work directly with filmmakers to add films to Kanopy and it’s an easy process. In other cases, a film’s rights may be sitting with a distributor under certain restrictions and that film may never be available for streaming purposes.”


As the Film Quarterly article noted, “the positive side of educational pricing is that more money per unit goes to the filmmaker, even as the distributor gets a percentage, too. The negative side is that it prices many films out of the reach of many potential viewers. (Even research libraries have budget constraints.) Might distributors be better off pricing their films lower to get wider distribution? Perhaps, but they have a plan based on their long experience with the market. Niche distributors, including distributors of many of the canonical films that scholars study or teach, are wary of cannibalizing the educational market with cheaper home video; for major studios, though, universities are only a small fraction of their distribution.” Academics may be a “small fraction” of these new outlets, but they should be respected as an important cultural asset and source of not only influence, but in helping develop tomorrow’s media and production innovators.

The future appears to be bright for streaming services, even after COVID.  As an analysis on the website The Drum notes, “many people are looking for entertainment and streaming video platforms more than ever to escape and to explore their own tastes, and to find stories from around the world and find a connection with a world that has been turned on its head. We are moving into a time when the long tail of video streaming is starting to show its strength.” How libraries will be able to participate in the distribution, curation and creation of these new communications and art forms is yet to be determined.

Streaming Growth Since Covid

A recent article in Film Quarterly  explains that “streaming fees eat into library budgets for physical media acquisitions. DVDs and Blu-ray discs last far longer than temporary streaming licenses.” Buying packaged deals may save time and help to build subject-based collections; however, they are not designed to meet the specific needs of faculty or students at point of need. And these middle-men streaming services do not control content, with individual production companies able to add or (more often) drop titles or access terms at will. It should be noted that many streaming platforms have made special offers to libraries during the COVID crisis as listed in this spreadsheet from VideoLib.

The Robeco market report goes further, noting that the “digitalization of consumption” is “still profoundly transforming the media and entertainment industry.” Not that libraries are standing still, just as with the early days of self-publishing and makerspaces, libraries are responding to these creative challenges in new ways as well.


“Streaming video at academic libraries is here to stay,” the Association for Library Collections & Technical Services’ 2019 Guide to Streaming Video Acquisitions explains. “Serving the needs of both students and faculty requires a balanced, strategic approach.” And, one might add, a bit of luck. A 2017 Library Journal study found that 70% of streaming requests come from faculty and 48% of the libraries in their study “acquire their video content through pre-selected collections curated by vendors, though only 20 percent prefer to do so.” From the LJ study it would appear that 80% of librarians don’t believe this system meets their faculty needs to support teaching and learning.  

“One big drawback to streaming video,” notes Molly Beisler, Interim Director of Technical Services and Head of Discovery Services at the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries, “is the high labor cost involved for managing streaming video on the part of Technical Services staff. Finding who can license content, negotiating the license, then tracking that license somehow is a real challenge, plus you have the challenge of providing access for one year only. Is it worth cataloging a streaming title for one year? If you don’t catalog it, how do you provide access? How do you make sure to take down access after one year? ILS/LSP platforms have not stepped up to integrate this process into their software.” 

Television streaming video concept

In a presentation at the 2019 ALA Annual Conference, University of Colorado – Denver librarians challenged libraries to treat access to streaming video as an equity issue: “Unlike videos on disc or videocassette, streaming videos cannot be shared and are thus only available to patrons who can attend a four-year college, live in wealthier parts of the state with well-funded public libraries, or can afford to pay for individual subscriptions to streaming services…. Libraries may not be able to influence video providers like Netflix and Hulu, but we do have influence in the educational video marketplace. Libraries should request licenses that allow interlibrary loan of content.”

University of South Florida Library’s Copyright and Intellectual Property Librarian LeEtta Schmidt explains to readers. She recently wrote about her experiences in an article focusing on streaming media and electronic reviews. “Speaking from my experience at an academic institution,” she explains to ATG readers, “I think it is pretty common for subject, liaison, and reference librarians to be put in the position of locating alternate content for faculty.  At my institution, this is usually a last step, when all other options and compromises have failed.”

“First, we try to obtain the material that the faculty member wants in the format they need,” Schmidt continues. “Sometimes this is not possible.  As a Copyright Librarian, I usually become involved when no copy in the correct format can be found.  I help with seeking permissions to digitize/stream the material.  If my search is fruitless, then the next best option, if available, is to get an older version like a DVD and provide information to the faculty member on how they might best utilize the DVD and the TEACH Act exception to share the material with their course.”


Library Makerspace

Many public and academic libraries are now working to incorporate more services to support the creation of new media into their services/resources. As one recent report noted, “the key threads brought together include a societal recognition of the value of creativity and related skills and attributes; the philosophies, values, and missions of libraries in both their longstanding forms and in recent evolutions; the rise of participatory culture as a result of inexpensive technologies; improved means to build community and share results of efforts; and library experience and historical practice in matters related to creativity.” 

University of Wisconsin researchers recently examined how this movement is tied to library missions by employing “a do-it-yourself orientation toward a range of disciplines, including robotics, woodworking, textiles, and electronics.  As reported in ATG in 2018, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce found that “makerspaces have a role to play in changing our broader worldview. Put another way, they are not just sites to craft objects but also places to champion new values and experiment with a different way of living – one that may be based on the tenets of self-reliance, sustainability and open source thinking….makerspaces have a role to play in changing our broader worldview. Put another way, they are not just sites to craft objects but also places to champion new values and experiment with a different way of living – one that may be based on the tenets of self-reliance, sustainability and open source thinking.”  Perhaps we will see Open Access video resources develop in parallel with other OA research materials.  

In the meantime, we continue to live “in a radically different time,” Berg believes. The Bloomberg Business Week article on trends in streaming video predicts more change ahead: “The longer theaters stay closed, the more studios experiment with models, and the more customers get used to seeing new movies at home.”  We only can hope that the critical needs of teaching and research won’t be forgotten as these new models are tested and implemented. 

Nancy K. Herther is a former librarian and currently writes and consults on technology issues. 


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