There was a bit of a controversy earlier this week, when Disney+ appeared to self-censor an episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldierremoving blood and graphic violence.

The change was spotted by an eagle-eyed viewer on Reddit and sparked a lot of speculation as to whether these changes could be related to age settings on the user’s profile. It was eventually confirmed that the company made a simple mistake and replaced the episode on its server with the sanitized version. The original cut of the episode has been restored and all is well with the world. Still, the whole drama raised some uncomfortable questions.

Clearly, this illustrates how modern media is truly an ephemeral phenomenon. In the age of streaming and digital on-demand, nothing really exists in definitive form. Day one patches used to be a matter of video games, but now they seem to be part of the language of movies and TV as well. Cats released an updated version with “enhanced visual effects” while the film was still in theaters.

To be clear, this is not a new phenomenon. The production schedule on X files was so tight that the special effects for the episode “Tunguska” were updated between airings on opposite coasts, with producer Frank Spotnitz admitting that “different people saw different versions of the show”. Infamous George Lucas spent decades tinkering with his star wars trilogy, a problem compounded by the refusal to make the original (and unedited) versions readily available.

To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with going back and tweaking past work. To insist that only one version of a particular movie or TV show should exist would mean losing out on wonders like Ridley Scott’s final version of blade runner or even redemptive efforts like Zack Snyder’s Justice League. There’s something to be said for presenting viewers with options, such as the packaging of all three versions of Francis Ford Coppola Revelation now in one collection.

Via The Direct.

The arrival of the streaming era should theoretically be the perfect time for movie curation. As the various studios set up their own platforms, built from their established brands, it makes sense to fill their libraries with as much material as possible. After all, services like Disney+ and HBO Max aren’t confined by the same logic as older video stores like Blockbuster. The subscriber does not walk through a physical store, but through an infinitely vast digital warehouse.

At some point during Inside, comedian Bo Burnham describes the internet as “everything, all the time”. It talks about the demand that modern social media makes on human attention span, but it also talks about infinite memory and the capacity of the internet as a conceptual space. At some point in The social network, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) warns Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), “The internet is not written in pencil, Mark. It’s written in ink.

So how come so much of the modern media landscape seems so fleeting? How is something like The girlfriend experience, a film by Oscar-winning actor Steven Soderbergh, not found on a streaming or digital service? Why can’t the public watch Mississippi Masala, a movie starring Denzel Washington, anywhere online? How did Britney Spears’ vehicle crossroads just disappeared from any online provider? These are not obscure or fringe films. Why can’t people pay to watch them?

To put all this into context, the market for physical media has collapsed. Wonder Woman 1984 would have been the best-selling DVD of 2021, selling 681,479 copies. It performed even better on Blu-ray, selling 965,983 units. However, even combined, these figures represent only a fraction of the 7,000,000 DVD copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 sold in 2011 or the 10,000,000 DVD copies that Avatar changed in 2010. While physical media has shrunk, streaming has only grown.

There are anecdotal reports from inside the industry that studios are moving away from the assumption that every movie or TV show needs a physical release. Historian Jerry Beck has suggested that Warner Bros. was moving away from DVD and Blu-ray releases of his films. Screenwriter Tom Jolliffe has written about how his most recent projects have bypassed physical releases in favor of streaming releases.

To be fair, there are certainly arguments to be made for this shift from physical media to streaming. Broadly speaking, streaming would appear to create less waste and require fewer raw materials than a physical press release, although there are indications that digital viewing has its own impact on the environment. On a personal level, it’s much easier to store a Google Chrome or Amazon Fire Stick than an entire physical library, especially if living space is an issue.

However, this change places a high level of reliance on content providers to maintain and protect their libraries, and incidents like what happened with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier suggest that these companies do not necessarily deserve this trust. Disney+ is missing more than 700 movies and TV shows from the company and has made changes to others. As of March 2021, Paramount+ was running out of individual TV show seasons and individual franchise installments.

Some suggest that these companies have no real interest in archiving and preservation, even for flagship properties. the star trek The brand is a major selling point for Paramount+, with the company boasting that it plans to ensure the franchise is “always on” to attract new subscribers. However, while the original star trek and The next generation have both been remastered for high definition, the company has yet to invest in the remaster Deep Space Nine Where Traveler.

Censorship of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier on Disney+ Shows Impermanence of Streaming Media, Fragility of Cinematic TV Preservation

All of this goes to the heart of the problem with the trust of big business as custodians of cultural history. This undermines any sense of permanence of film and television, as what is available at any given time is dictated by the financial and political priorities of the companies that own both the medium itself and the platform on which it would be made available. In some ways, this is an extension of the larger issues of reducing such media to mere “content,” erasing any inherent sense of value.

For decades, film and television have been treated as inherently disposable media with no real value beyond the immediate profit they could generate. Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation reports that “half of all American films made before 1950 and over 90% of films made before 1929 are lost forever.” Improvements in physical media, such as the development of acetate-based films, helped. However, so did the rise of secondary markets like television and later home media.

Over the decades there have been extensive restoration and recovery projects rooted in the idea that people other than the studios can physically own copies of media. Lost episodes of Doctor Who have been pieced together from audio recordings of the television broadcast and even copies of episodes that ended up in the hands of private collectors. star wars fans cobbled together “dedicated” editions of the films from various physical sources.

Much of this is lost when transitioning from physical media to streaming. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is part of the most successful franchise in the world. It was a huge hit on its own, giving the streaming service its most-watched premiere to this point. However, this error was not detected by an internal check. It was spotted by a random Reddit user, who was able to compare it to an archived copy of the original, likely pirated as there are no planned physical media releases.

Censorship of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier on Disney+ Shows Impermanence of Streaming Media, Fragility of Cinematic TV Preservation

What would have happened if the user had not had a copy of the original handy for comparison? What if this was an episode of a show that wasn’t popular enough to be widely distributed through piracy, itself an unlikely hub for film preservation? What if it was about a property with a fanbase less obsessed with that kind of detail? What if this was a change to a movie or show released years or decades ago, and the details linger less overtly in memory?

These are all deeply troubling questions with potentially troubling answers. What happened with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was an accident, but he was only caught because it was an accident on one of the hottest franchises in the world. Does the fanbase of other Disney-adjacent streaming projects like The stall Where Only murders in the building were so quick to spot a similar adjustment, and would it have gotten the same level of media coverage prompting a correction?

It has taken decades for the public and archivists to accept film and television as permanent rather than transitory media, to accept that they are cultural objects that must be preserved and maintained. What happened with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier suggests that some of this ground may have been lost in the move toward a consolidated streaming landscape. If streaming is just a content repository, these kinds of fixes can’t be considered a surprise.