The Death of the DVD: Advanced Funeral Notice

December 5, 2010

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File Under: Endangered Species. From Wikipedia.org

Ten years ago, it might have seemed impossible to think that CDs would be on the verge of extinction. Artists like Eminem, U2 and (gulp) Limp Bizkit were on top of the world and moving albums by the millions. Now, with the reshaping of the music industry via the internet, platinum albums have become something of a rarity. So perhaps it’s not surprising that we may now be hearing the death knell of another media disc format at the hands of the internet: the DVD.

Initially, the rise of alternative rental services like Netflix and OnDemand cable seemed to only pose a threat to video rental chains like Blockbuster. Now that those chains have been all but eliminated, it seems that the next step could be a total elimination of the DVD format as a whole.

Services like Netflix and OnDemand were able to eliminate rental stores by being more convenient. The films came to you when you wanted them and didn’t carry the stigma of late fees. Then Netflix introduced its streaming film services, and OnDemand providers started to rent out movies without the normal delay between DVD release and OnDemand release. Apple also got into the mix by adding movie rentals and purchases to the iTunes store. Now, films are available to own without requiring the buyer to ever claim a physical copy. It all seems to raise a more serious question–why have DVDs at all?

Consumers seem to be trending towards abandoning the format, as DVD sales have been steadily declining since 2007, Blu-Ray included. Most of this is due to sheer convenience, especially in the case of Netflix, which allows subscribers to stream selected films directly to their computers, iPads and TVs with no additional cost from their basic rental plan. In addition, Netflix is now offering a streaming only plan, while raising the prices on their physical DVD rental plans. This allows viewers to use Netflix as an OnDemand style library, except that instead of paying for each film individually, they’ll pay a flat monthly rate to access all of Netflix’s streaming movies and television shows. The problem here is that if you want to rent physical copies of movies, it’s going to cost you extra.

Some movie studios are also beginning to explore new ways of releasing films in a format that would allow consumers to view the content over a wide range of devices. A perfect example is Disney’s Keychest, which was announced in 2009 to provide access to films that could be viewed on televisions, computers, phones and other devices all for a single purchase price. This is a clear advantage over DVD based film retail; now you can view a purchased movie anywhere, even if you don’t have a DVD or DVD player around. Between incoming technology like this and the growing interest in streaming rental services like Netflix, iTunes and OnDemand, the DVD market is about a step away from going on life support.

But DVDs aren’t dead yet, and there are still a few roadblocks to clear before the funeral service can get underway. Without question the biggest stepping stone is the selection of films available in DVD-less format. Though Netflix has a large selection of titles available for instant streaming, they rarely feature new releases in their streaming section, and also have just as many older films that aren’t available to stream. OnDemand faces the opposite problem; for the most part they only feature newly released films, and are only available for a few days. For repeated viewing of newly released films, purchasing a DVD still makes sense–for the time being, at least.

Soon You Won't Need a Disc to Watch "Coach Carter". From Wikipedia.org

Quality is the other issue. While streaming options are certain easier than DVD viewing, they can’t always match a DVD in terms of picture and sound quality. Of course, there are high definition computers and televisions that present a sharper image, but streaming a film and getting a high quality image is also reliant on a user’s internet connection. DVDs don’t have this problem, and neither do Blu-Ray. iTunes was able to become a mecca of music sales because the digital music they sell matches a CD in sound quality. In order for streaming video services to fully supplant video discs, they’ll have to find a way to ensure a crisp transfer of image and sound every time, and on every viewing medium, whether that be an iPod, a television, or a phone.

If online and cable based film viewing services can remedy issues about viewing selection and quality, then they will certainly be poised to deal a significant blow to the already-withering DVD market. But there is one other, small factor that must be taken into consideration: film collectors.

Just as there are those who continue to buy hard copies of music (whether that be on CD or vinyl), there will always be people who pride themselves on having a personal film library. No doubt this is a small group (just as it is with music), but there will always be a certain group with an aesthetic attachment to a physical copy of a film. They may become obscure in the same vein as rare book collectors and vinyl album fanatics, but just as they exist for those art forms, it is almost certain that they will exist for film.

For the rest of the world (and if we aren’t counting film collectors, that’s a lot of people), the signs are all in place that the DVD is on the way out. Blu-Ray discs are a small wildcard in the equation, but their revenue has also been on the decline, and should the alternative viewing services find a way to match their image quality, they will be all but obsolete. Only a few barriers remain between the current state and an almost disc-free market, and the change could happen much sooner than you think.