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Lamenting the Creeping Death of the DVD/Blu-Ray as Perfect Holiday Gifts

During the Christmas of 2002, my two brothers and I each received the same exact gift: the Back to the Future: The Complete Trilogy DVD box-set.  It was an unintentionally hilarious turn of events whereby none of us actually knew we had each requested this then-new release for Christmas.  There we were opening presents on Christmas Eve only to in quick succession each open our individual copies, hold them up for all to see, and then respond with, “Hey, I got that, too!”  This was a trick I partially repeated several years later when I surprised both of my brothers with DVD copies of the Matthew Broderick-Helen Hunt 1980s cult-classic Project X, which we all loved as kids but had only recently become available to buy   I left them as stocking stuffers, getting one for myself as well.

Project X
I’m talking about this Project X – the one with Broderick and the NASA program involving monkeys, not the found footage Project X teen party movie from 2013.

This Christmas there was no joyful exchange of DVDs or Blu-Rays, except for the practically mandatory gifting of Despicable Me 2 and Monsters University to my 5-year-old nephew.  In fact, regardless of the holidays the last DVD or Blu-Ray box-set I personally purchased was the complete series set for Justice League/Justice League Unlimited (yes, it is ostensibly a children’s cartoon, but they can’t appreciate it on as many levels as us adults…I guess).  As is now a common occurrence, both shows were made available to stream on Netflix mere months after I purchased them on DVD.

Of course, what I have presented to this point is mere anecdotal evidence.  The basic gist is that I come from a family which once embraced DVDs and Blu-Rays as ideal gifts but has since moved on.  I have a sense that my experience is not unique.  That facts are these (from Forbes):

According to annual figures released in January by industry trade group the Digital Entertainment Group, overall home entertainment revenue grew 0.2% in 2012, surpassing $18 billion. Physical disc sales have fallen by about 30% since their 2004 peak when they sold 1.2 billion units to now selling around 700 million units, but the revenue picture has remained stable. The reason is diversification. Consumers remain hungry for content, but are finding more and more avenues to it — electronic sell-through (EST), subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) or transactional VOD has all amounted to the same pie, just sliced into more pieces. 

Furthermore about the diversification to digital sales, from TheWrap:

Electronic sales of movies and shows are on pace to increase 50 percent in 2013 and to hit $1.3 billion, the first time revenues have topped the billion dollar mark. Industry executives expect similar growth in 2014, with sales hitting $2 billion.

While that’s great, it’s a bit less impressive considering that at its peak DVD sales neared $18 billion.  Luckily, Blu-Rays have somewhat stabilized the market for physical product, with sales steadily increasing and on path to overtake DVD as the dominant physical format by maybe 2015.

So, basically, the death of the DVD and Blu-Ray has been somewhat exaggerated.  Everyone can see that the ultimate trend is for digital distribution to eventually surpass physical distribution.  However, that is still a bit down the horizon.  DVD/Blu-Rays are still favored by specialized markets like sports team championship releases, Blu-Rays still offer a superior viewing experience, the extra features which do not usually transfer to the digital side still make them attractive to cinephiles, and many outside of major markets are not in a rush to embrace digital distribution.

Yet this past Christmas when I was faced with requesting a couple of documentaries for Christmas I asked for them on DVD because of tradition but in reality all I really wanted was to purchase them on Vudu so I could access them on multiple devices and wherever I had WiFi access.  For those whom internet access is not an issue – a big exception, of course – digital has physical easily beat in convenience.  There is no need for physical storage nor is there concern for physical wear and tear.  And that’s only if you are still willing to pay a fee for ownership of a specific title as opposed to merely paying for access to a product, such as the business models employed by Netflix and Hulu.  As Netflix users are all-too aware, this option makes you vulnerable to the whims of corporate contracts meaning those movies and shows you’d been meaning to get to will just not be there anymore tomorrow, usually with little to no warning.

These are all first-world problems to have, of course.  Those in more impoverished conditions won’t weep for those debating the preferred format of owning access to movies you may never actually watch again or TV shows you may grow to dislike over time.  From a gift-giving standpoint, the easy solution is simply to defer to gift cards, which to some feels dangerously close to simply giving someone money as a gift but to others is perfectly acceptable.

I have embraced digital means of media consumption, and the only Blu-Rays I purchase are those that offer a combo pack including a digital UltraViolet copy.  I am not particularly dismayed by the loss of visual fidelity between an actual Blu-Ray and HD digital copies.  I also surprisingly do not greatly miss all of the DVD special features with which I would have been privy had I viewed (for example) the Ken Burns Baseball documentary series on DVD instead of Netflix.  However, something like my brothers and I all getting the DVD box set of Back to the Future for Christmas isn’t likely to happen again.  I’ll miss that.  I guess I already do.

This article was inspired by NPR’s Is the DVD Box Set Dead?  Yes…and No.  


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