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Netflix announces downloading: how much will it change the industry?

The content streaming company will now allow users to download select shows and watch them offline. How does this change the game?

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    A person displays Netflix on a tablet in North Andover, Mass. Netflix subscribers can now download shows and movies to watch later when they’re not online, like during a flight or car. The download option was added to phone and tablet apps Wednesday.
    Elise Amendola/AP
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Netflix is famous for revolutionizing the way people watch movies and television shows. Now, the media company is bringing a whole new development to the content streaming game.

How many times have Netflix users wanted to catch up on the latest season of "Orange is the New Black" on an airplane, or in their dentist's office's waiting room? Quite often, according to Netflix, which announced on Wednesday that it would allow users to download certain content and take it with them, even to places without easy internet access.

This is just the latest development in a long series of cord-cutting measures taken by streaming companies, experts say, but it could be one that inspires content creators and distributors to re-evaluate the industry.

“This might not be that big of a deal at first, but if Netflix is doing it, then Amazon and Hulu are going to do it,” says Sacramento State University professor Daniel Smith-Rowsey, author of “The Netflix Effect.” “In general, the major studios and Silicon Valley companies are definitely going to be watching this.”

Netflix says that while not all of its content will be downloadable, the new feature will be available to all Android and iOS users on phones and tablets. Users must simply update their Netflix app to to the latest version in order to be able to access the new feature.

The streaming company has not yet released a full list of all downloadable movies and shows, although many Netflix originals such as "Stranger Things" and "Narcos" are on the current limited list, as are some movies and shows created by other parties.

"While many members enjoy watching Netflix at home, we've often heard they also want to continue their "Stranger Things" binge while on airplanes and other places where Internet is expensive or limited. Just click the download button on the details page for a film or TV series and you can watch it later without an internet connection," announced Netflix's Director of Product Innovation, Eddy Wu.

Netflix has been setting the gold standard for the modern content viewing industry for more than a decade.

In the beginning, Dr. Smith-Rowsey says, movie studios and Silicon Valley companies were able to scoff at Netflix’s postal DVD delivery service. Now, however, “they’re long past the laughing stage.”

In fact, Smith-Rowsey says that today’s announcement could mean that “long tail” economics are not yet dead.

Coined by Wired writer Chris Anderson in 2004, the “long tail” refers to media streaming services that host massive catalogs full of both popular and obscure content. While the top items in any of these streaming sites may be the most viewed by far, the company loses next to nothing if just one or two listeners or viewers reach the uncharted regions of their catalog per month.

At the time that Anderson was writing, he reported that approximately one-fifth of all Netflix rentals came from outside the top 3,000 items in its catalog.

And although Netflix has trimmed some of its more obscure movie selections in recent years, this measure could mean that it is still chasing niche users, which has implications for every major Silicon Valley company and the big six Hollywood studios.

Netflix’s decision to allow users to download content and take it with them wherever they go, he says, is certainly going to force other companies to think differently about their business models.

Other media experts disagree, however, and say that Wednesday’s announcement is simply one more small step toward cutting the cord.

“This was predictable,” says Barry Orton, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It is a small and incremental step towards severing the cord and getting rid of time restraints.”

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