For years, audiences have slowly moved away from physical media, increasingly relying on on-demand video streaming to provide their entertainment. The most virulent recalcitrants were divided into two groups: older and/or rural consumers, who are reluctant or less able to switch completely; and movie buffs who appreciate the picture quality and bonus features available on disc, which are often not comparable for digital copies of the same films. But as we can see from the ever-decreasing number of physical video rental stores in the United States, these groups are largely starting to pop up.
Still, there are some very good reasons not to throw away this DVD player just yet, and one of them has come into sharp relief lately. Let’s break it down.
A key element to examine is the still existing VHS user base. As the dominant home video medium for 20 years, videotapes (VHS and Betamax) represented a seismic shift in the way audiences consumed movies. There were a few early attempts at home entertainment on disc, such as DiscoVision and RCA’s Capacitance Electronic Disc (CED), but none took off like tapes. For the first time, not only could people take movies home, but with the advent of video cassettes, viewers could also record television shows, allowing them for the first time to shift their viewing.
The ensuing home video boom not only brought just about every major studio film to VHS, but also created a healthy direct-to-video market, creating a niche for content that would not otherwise be produced. As big-box video rental stores like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video popped up everywhere, there was an almost insatiable appetite for content to fill shelves and keep customers coming back week after week.
Chances are you know all or most of this, but what a lot of people don’t know is that there are hundreds (probably thousands, really) of pre-recorded titles that were commercially available on VHS. , but which were never released on DVD, Blu-ray, or streaming. In some cases, the movies are in the public domain or have confusing rights issues, and so there’s no incentive for anyone to spend money marketing them. Even in some cases where ownership of a movie is clear, sometimes the studio doesn’t see a path to profitability. This is why there is still a fairly active VHS collecting and preservation community, as detailed in books like He came from the video aisle and documentaries like Rewind that!.
This is not a problem exclusive to VHS. There were movies released on CED and Betamax that were never released on VHS either. And there are (as most people reading this probably know) movies on DVD that never came to Blu-ray or streaming. There are also movies and TV shows that never had a commercial release and only exist on home-made VHS recordings, and some that got very short-term releases through specialty imprints like Shout! Factory and now cost hundreds of dollars to acquire as they are sold out.
This brings us to the next major problem, which has been helpfully illustrated to us over the past few weeks by Warner Bros. Discovery.
The headlines focused on bat girl, Scoob! : The Holiday Haunt, and the other projects that have simply been canceled and will be shelved, but CEO David Zaslav’s dismantling of HBO Max had a much bigger impact on consumers than that. A number of HBO Max Originals have been removed from the platform, with their “free” episodes also removed from YouTube.
In the case of Infinity Train, the show had already seen a physical release – and those records, now out of print, are now selling for huge sums of money on eBay.
And that’s the thing: now is not the time to harass fans of the series who haven’t thought to buy a DVD copy. After all, for years we’ve been conditioned to believe that on-demand video streaming means an ever-growing catalog of content will be available forever at a reasonable price. The problem is, that’s just not how businesses operate.
The same companies that decide not to officially release cult classics on DVD because they don’t know how to sell them, are now choosing to remove “underperforming” titles from their streaming platforms to save pennies on the internet. ‘server space, or just to avoid paying the talent their residuals. It’s a loss for the consumer, especially when – as Zaslav promised in the case of HBO Max – it comes with a price hike, but if it brings in a few extra pennies for shareholders, that’s what that really matters to a public-traded company at the end of the day.
It’s not just about Warner Bros.’ cost-cutting spree. Discovery. The idea is applicable more broadly to the streaming ecosphere. For years, this happened with Netflix where audiences were lulled into deals that made it seem like a show or movie would be available to them forever at the cost of membership. Then, suddenly, Netflix’s contract with the distributor ends, and the programming is gone. Often it heads to another streaming platform, especially in the case of content owned by WB, CBS, or NBC, all of which have huge platforms to fill. But sometimes, if there’s no one bidding on it, the content evaporates for a while.
And in a bit of symmetry, not everything available for streaming is backwards compatible, so to speak. Only the highest-grossing streaming originals get a physical release from companies like Netflix and HBO Max, and in the Disney+ cast, it seems nothing does. In these cases, the public is more or less beholden to the whims of the companies creating the content. And this is likely to become more prevalent over time. For now, however, nearly every major studio release and pretty much every popular streaming movie and show will be getting some sort of disc release. We recommend picking it up, because really, owning something tangible and tamper-proof is the only way to really be sure it’ll work the next time you hit play.