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The Death and Resurrection of Physical Entertainment Media


It's fascinating how things have changed in the space of a few years when it comes to optical media. While DVD rental stores like Blockbusters, Mr Video and Vee's Video have been progressively disappearing for over a decade, followed by walk-in retail CD and DVD outlets like Look & Listen and Musica... one wonders just how long it will take before this age of optical media is deemed obsolete, labelled vintage and relegated to antique stores?

The Death and Resurrection of Physical Entertainment Media

VHS - A Retro Cult

VHS still has a cult following, partly owing to some of the underground stuff that made it onto tapes. While you may have warm fuzzy feelings about wandering around your local video store as a kid, trying to figure out the difference between Beta and VHS... or why the covers for It and Fright Night bothered you so much... it's still quite shocking to think some people have a VHS collection in the year 2021, let alone a video machine. Not only have hi-fi stores stopped selling VHS players around the time that dual DVD/VHS players were phased out, but that these tape-playing devices still work decades later! They don't make 'em like they used to, right?

DVD - An Audio-visual Revolution

DVDs seem to have had a good innings, offering much greater clarity of sound and picture, acceptable even by today's fussy standards. While easily scratchable and repairable if you have a machine to get rid of deeper scratches or toothpaste if you've tried a DIY solution, this optical media is still around, happily co-existing as the cheap and dispensable alternative to Blu-rays, 4K and streaming services. Granted you may struggle to find the film you're looking for if it wasn't pressed to DVD in the last year, the format's managing to hang in there.

Blu-ray - The Cinephile's Choice

Blu-ray was meant to supersede DVD and it did in audio-visual prowess. However, many had bought into DVD in such a big way that being able to upscale your DVDs in a Blu-ray player didn't make re-buying your entire collection seem all that necessary. In South Africa, paying R150 ($10) for a new release DVD made these makeshift "coasters" valuable commodities to their owners. When Blu-ray came in to take over, DVD prices bottomed out making it even more attractive to stay loyal.

While Blu-ray was far superior, undemanding viewers didn't mind the sound and picture quality they were getting and besides... the Blu-ray commercials were trying to use your home theatre to somehow prove to you what you had wasn't good enough. It just seemed a bit silly to play against the "well enough alone" principle if you were satisfied with your set up.

Mail Order DVDs

Netflix started as a DVD mail rental service at a time when this still made sense. Being able to pick the movies you want, have them delivered, collected and giving you ample time to get to them... it was a helluva lot easier than getting in the car twice to watch a movie once. Pushplay tried to model this formula in South Africa for a time with a few other competitors scratching the surface. DVD vending machines even came to the party but there just wasn't any competing with direct to Smart TV streaming. How can you beat being able to pick whatever you want to watch and hit play on demand?

Stream On Demand

While South Africa was behind the curve, partly because of internet speeds and licensing issues, the revolution eventually reached our shores. Now with a multitude of streaming options including: Acorn, Amazon Prime, Britbox, Netflix and Showmax with Disney + around the corner, it's become easy to subscribe and watch whatever's on the service.

What's incredible is that it's actually become easier (and cheaper) to subscribe than pirate movies. While this doesn't stop illegal downloads of the latest entertainment content with some legitimate-looking websites springing up to simply allow users to watch things before they've had a chance to screen at cinemas, it must have undercut a great deal of casual pirating. How these streaming services can justify charging users the price of what a DVD used to cost per month about a decade ago, just seems impossible. Brilliant but impossible.

What You See is What You Get

Services like JustWatch are making it possible for people to get a better handle on their content management, which seems to be the biggest bugbear about having too much to watch at your fingertips. Streaming providers tend to throttle the selection in an effort to show you more of what you may want to watch but if you were to use an aggregator, you'd discover just how big your viewing library actually is and be able to get a better sense for it.

There's something a bit deceptive about giving you a flashlight to find out what's in the room, making it easier for Netflix to shift titles, drop non-performers and highlight their own content. The way things are going with new streaming providers rising up like weeds, the next battle is going to be over just which streaming service to subscribe to. To make matters even more complicated, licensors are allowing their show to stream on one platform for a while before shifting over to another.

Since we're already swimming in new films and TV shows, more than we could ever hope to watch, it just all seems a bit overwhelming. As inexpensive as it is to subscribe to one provider, straddling a few can start to add up, especially when like a gym membership you don't feel as though you're using it enough to justify the cost. Trying to target certain shows, which could slip out from under you when you're half way through season 5 of 9, this digital wonderland may not be as all that and a bag of chips as you initially thought.

Our Stuff Owns Us?

Digital has taken a bit step up, now punting downloadable films, games and software. Since the pandemic, people have been confronted with their materialism and this global crisis has probably given people enough time to look themselves in the mirror and realise that their stuff may own them. Breaking free of this paradigm is more about thinking about what you actually need over what you want and this is partly why the physical media movie market has collapsed.

Streaming services give you access and that's what has become more important these days. It's not about the rich mahogany and leather-bound books that adorn your library, you know one of those ones with a ladder on rails. While your walk-in DVD store size collection may have impressed some of your film buff buddies at one point, even if it was more size than selection, it now just seems like a waste of space.

A New Generation

Add the new generation's bent towards cleaner design, more minimalistic thinking in terms of lifestyle and environment and you've got yourself a wall that needs upcycling. While low-level movie collectors have probably sold or given away their DVD collections by now, it's quite amazing just how much value these physical artefacts have lost. While many may have parted with R150 at one point to get the latest flick on DVD from a Musica or Look & Listen store, those suckers will now be looking at R5 to R20 depending on the perceived value or nostalgia the film in question is able to conjure.

A bit of a Wild West scenario has developed where many have abandoned physical media entirely. Many laptops have stopped offering optical drives and it's quickly becoming a waste of time to give someone a disc as a gift in the event they simply aren't able to play it. Perhaps storage, picking out a disc to play, putting it in the disc tray or even the diminishing returns of the film itself are making it difficult for people imagine keeping these plastic discs around the house.

If you aren't using something, sell it, give it away or loan it to someone who wants to enjoy it. What's the point of amassing a collection if it isn't being actively used, just simply gathering dust and wait to become an issue for whoever has to clean up your house. Spling tried to start #PlayIt4wd - an idea that by writing this on the cover, you'd encourage people to pass it along to another once you've finished. While gifting friends and family in the immediate circle wasn't quite the launch it needed to become a self-sustaining exercise, the thought was there.

Where to From Here?

What we may find in the future is that the depth of titles available on streaming are just not what they used to be. Trying to find a specific movie to watch may still be more possible with optical media than scouring databases. Being able to play a movie at decent resolution and with quality sound beats having a bad internet connection, which is why some people still prefer physical media over downloadable content. A strong collective of diehard DVD and Blu-ray fans will persist, exchanging movies with each other and trying to keep their love for the home video game alive. Just like cassette tapes, LPs and VHS, these retro entertainment mediums will probably come full circle to a time when it's great to be able to have a piece of cinema history, own a film in a physical form rather than simply rent it in cyberspace.