Sunday, April 10, 2016

Video: How long will DVD and Blu-rays survive?

It’s a slow week in Videoville -- no major releases in the wake of the seventh “Star Wars”-- so it’s time for another in my occasional series on the state of home video.

When I wrote the first such column about seven years ago, I stated emphatically that DVD and the then-fairly-new Blu-ray format were the inarguable superior choice for watching movies at home. The picture and sound are unmatched compared to streaming, and most disc releases include bonus features unavailable elsewhere.

Over time, I’ve crab-walked further and further over to the streaming video side of the argument. In my last such piece, I admitted that my own family’s streaming consumption far exceeded our time watching on disc.

Now I’m ready to take the next step and ask: How much longer will DVD and Blu-rays survive as a viable format?

Sales of discs continue to fall. Netflix is now largely a streaming business with an arm that mails you DVDs and Blu-rays. Even the cheapest smartphone or tablet can stream Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu, Vudu, etc. Aside from the limits of your data plan and available Wi-Fi, you can watch almost anything, almost anywhere.

At home, between my Netflix and Amazon Prime subscriptions I can choose from literally thousands of films to stream instantly. And with a decent TV and surround sound, the presentation is roughly equal to DVD.

When people do want discs, they will use Redbox or a similar low-cost outlet to rent DVDs so they can see new releases on video right away rather than waiting for them to come to streaming.

In the unofficial election between video quality vs. convenience, the latter has won in a landslide. Movies on disc are the political equivalent of Barry Goldwater. DVDs have been around since 1999; Blu-ray since 2006. So what happens next?

My best guess is that discs will continue as a popular medium another decade or so. By then, the model for TV/movie/video consumption will have sufficiently blurred that it will no longer seem strange to have a new film released in theaters and streaming simultaneously.

Blu-ray and DVD will become a niche market for hardcore cinephiles who seek the absolute highest quality presentation possible -- roughly analogous to where CDs are for music today.

We are now seeing 3-D and Ultra HD televisions everywhere in stores, along with high-end Blu-ray players to accommodate them. As the price point on those comes down and more titles become available, a certain strata of consumers will migrate to that for when they really want to experience a movie at home with amazing picture and sound.

They key to the survival of the disc format is making sure next-gen players are backward compatible with Blu-rays and DVD. I, for one, don’t want to have to throw out a collection I spent years and thousands of dollars building.

(I already did that once with laserdiscs -- remember those? -- and painfully recall titles I paid $40 for being sold on eBay at $3 or $4.)

The point is, watching movies will continue to grow more democratic and versatile. People will still curl up before a big TV at home to watch a movie, but more often they want to watch while they’re eating lunch, riding in a vehicle or airplane, or even sitting in the dentist’s chair.

DVD and Blu-ray, and their disc-based successors, will endure like classic cars or sports cars. Perhaps 5 percent of the marketplace craves to drive in style; everybody else just wants to get from place to place with the greatest of ease.

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