Streaming Has Won, Whether We Like It Or Not |

Streaming Has Won, Whether We Like It Or Not

The writing was on the wall a decade ago, when Netflix stood as a novel proof of concept that people would absolutely like to have an assortment of movies and TV shows just a click away on their TVs — no discs, Blu-Ray players or trips to the video store required.

For DVDs and Blu-Rays, it’s been a slow death that is finally getting faster in recent months. We’ve reached what feels like a breaking point, fresh off the news that big box retailer Best Buy will stop selling DVDs and Blu-Ray discs early next year and rumblings that fellow big box chain Wal-Mart might be narrowing its video game media inventory by dropping physical Xbox games (as the Microsoft platform makes the shift to more digital game sales). Those moves are likely just the first dominoes as these companies realize that valuable shelf space could make them more money stocking something else. If Best Buy came to this realization, it stands to reason other chains will do the same before long.

On the surface, DVD and Blu-Ray sales have been cratering for a while now. Stats from 2019 showed DVD sales dropping more than 80 percent compared to a decade prior, while Blu-Ray sales were also declining. More streaming services have popped up in the years since, and the convenience of digital purchases and streaming are just too convenient for people to keep shelling out cash to physically own a movie.

With streaming utterly ubiquitous and DVDs now poised to start disappearing from shelves, we’ve arguably gone too far to turn back now. Thinking back just 12-15 years ago, movie rental chains like Blockbuster were still staples of strip malls in cities across the country. If you wanted to watch a movie, it was easy enough to hit your local Blockbuster and rent it. If you were patient and didn’t want to make the drive, there was also the (pre-streaming) version of Netflix, which itself helped usher in the demise of Blockbuster. Netflix kept mailing movies out for the decade since then, but that founding cornerstone of its business shut down earlier this year.

If you want to watch a movie on DVD now? About the only way to do it is to purchase it online to ship to you or a store for pickup (hope you have something other than a Best Buy nearby). Even Redbox kiosks have seen their inventory become fairly limited in recent years.

The reason it’s so hard to watch a movie on DVD or Blu-Ray right now? Because it’s so darn easy to just stream it instead. If it’s not already on Netflix, Hulu, Peacock, Prime Video, Max or Paramount Plus, you can find plenty of popular older films on digital rental services like Vudu or Amazon’s Prime store. As streaming rights have gotten more convoluted and cyclical, literally every service is constantly cycling different films on and off month-to-month, so there’s always something fresh rolling on regardless of your streamer of choice (even if it’s not what you’re actually looking for, which is a different problem).

But all that convenience brings its own problems. Put simply: You don’t really own the movies you buy digitally. When you’re dealing with a DVD, that thing is always going to work (unless you scratch it or hang onto it a few decades and the disc starts to rot). No internet, downloads or rights management required. But digital purchases are a bit more complicated. Instead of physically owning a copy of the movie, you’re essentially purchasing a license to watch it as much as you want. The problem with that is the license is still subject to rights agreements with the service (i.e. if Paramount decided to pull Vudu’s access to its movies) in addition to those companies remaining in operation. It’s not likely, but if Amazon were to ever go out of business, all that digital media you purchased through its platforms would essentially cease to work without Amazon running the servers and keeping the rights deals in place to make it all happen.

Of course, these are things we’ve known — consciously or subconsciously — for a while now. Digital media has always been ephemeral, while physical media has always been, well, physical. Heck, even the streamers are making it pretty clear, with Max pulling its own original hits like Westworld off its catalog, and Disney Plus vanishing its hyped original Willow series just a few months after it premiered. The case holds true for videogames too, though as gaming has moved more online it makes sense that the majority of videogame sales take place digitally. But it also means the days of blowing the dust out of old cartridges and firing up an old console are likely beyond us when it comes to the current generation of video games a decade or two down the line.

Nothing is forever when it comes to streaming and digital media. If you like a show or movie and want to be able to watch it indefinitely the only truly safe thing to do is own it on DVD and Blu-Ray. Which has been fine, so long as DVDs and Blu-Ray sets were easy enough to find — and there’s the rub. As retailers start to pull physical media from shelves because sales are slow, it becomes even less economical for companies to continue releasing shows and movies on DVD and Blu-Ray at all.

So, we’re left with streaming, with all its warts and flaws, because we’ve become so spoiled to the ease of access and inured to its inherent flaws. Convenience has won, that much is clear. Just pull your faded Blockbuster membership card out of the drawer whenever you need a reminder. It’s an ouroboros of physical media evolving to streaming to streaming killing physical media — and we’re living in the death kneel.

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