Sunday, August 28, 2016

What If They Gave a Digital-vs-Disk War, And...

For a big splashy illustration at the top of the column, I did a search for home-theater clip art, and for some odd reason known only to Google's image-search, a Green Eggs & Ham image came up--Given the headline, that turned out to be more uniquely appropriate.

Over the last two to three years, studios facing what they believe are declining Blu-ray sales (caused, mostly, by a decline of Best Buy stores), thrilled by the new possibility of selling their movies directly to the public online through Ultraviolet distribution services, and buoyed by streaming Netflix's "cord-cutting" success against cable, have been scaling back their wide mainstream retail disk sales for the coming "Digital revolution".
Fox and Sony have just announced plans to further back Warner Archive's MOD model for catalogue Blu-ray/DVD disks, since physical media, we're told, is "on the way out"--It's part of that new Millennial mindset of the 21st-century generation, social critics theorize, that the 18-24 demographic doesn't want to tie themselves to personal possessions, since they see it as a "mistake" of the earlier generation, and grew up more instinctively tuned to the convenience of renting their needs or getting them online instead.

And as new findings came in this past week, turns out there's just one little hitch to that long-range strategy:   It's NOT HAPPENING.  
The studios' biggest current obstacle to the "New digital revolution" and the "Decline and death of physical Blu-ray disk" seems to be more that universal problem of "'Reality', that's the part on the outside of the head."

Last Tuesday (8/23), data research site GfK published their latest survey findings on the public's acceptance of digital downloads.
A few samplings, from 1,009 customers surveyed in spring 2016:
- Less than half of viewers today rent digital movies compared to DVD and VHS at their highest point.
- The peak customer has about 23 digital titles in his collection, either purchased or free bonus digital-copies included with the disk, while the peak DVD/Blu disk collection had 89 titles.
- 68-70% of customers surveyed have never bought or rented a digital title.
- When surveyed the reasons why not, the 18% majority opinion was "Availability of hard copy", followed by the 11% "No need/Not interested".

To extrapolate a more simplified observation from the data, it can be theorized that the larger home-theater public simply does not want Green Eggs and Digital-Lockers, whether they're "convenient", "the Future", or no. 
They do not want them in their home, they do not want them on their Chrome.  
They do not want them fast or slow, they do not want them on the go.  
They do not want downloads to try, they do not want Blu-ray to "die".  
The public does not LIKE digital downloads, they do not want them, Warner-the-Market-Cornerer.
"Try them, try them and you will see?"--Well, that's the prob, from the data, they're not doing that either, and even those that did try them don't really quite seem to be getting the point with any palpable degree of enthusiasm.  
What words can we use?:  They just don't appear to be that flippin' popular.

So why does the industry put such near-religious faith in the belief that Blu-ray is "dying" and that digital is catching on "like wildfire"?  Like most faith, wishful thinking.  It would be a more useful world for the studios if all movies could be sold online without the production expenses of plastic, cardboard and mass-retail rollout, and even pre-ordered while the movie was still playing theaters, so they wouldn't have to wait to start recouping on it.  And any reason that particular utopia isn't happening yet is simply an "unfortunate" obstacle.
Another reason is the search for questions they're unable to answer:  Studios are not subtle thinkers, leap quickly to any rescue, and believe one found explanation will work for all, regardless of context--Because of MP3, there are no more CD's, ergo, if Digital exists, there must be no more Blu/DVD's.  This to them is logic, unlike the nervous fears and business hyper-defensiveness of the earlier posted "Welcome our new Overlords" theory.
All execs know, from a tech-luddite layman's viewpoint, is that the strange trendy-announced New Thing always comes along and crushes the previously accepted Old Thing that everyone made the stubborn, expensive mistake of clinging to. So, c'mon, why hasn't Digital done its duty and crushed physical Disk off the face of the earth yet, like it says so right here in the script?--I mean, print magazines and E-books, fer cryin' out loud!

To answer the question of whether any new format or technology will become the Next Big Thing as a "replacement" technology, making the old one culturally and technologically obsolete, depends on three test conditions:

  • 1) It must solve a problem:  Usually, an annoying problem of physical barriers that was the tradeoff of enjoying it.  DVD had this when it first caught on after the format war--Most here of the right age remember where they were when they first saw a DVD at a friend's house, and marveled not so much at the picture and sound quality of the disk, as the miracle that you...(happy tears)...didn't have to REWIND it!  MP3 music on your iPod not only didn't snarl like cassette tapes, or jog like heavy portable CD players, it also allowed you to buy only the song you wanted, without album filler.  And the cellphone in your pocket not only meant that you would never be stranded for pay-phones again on the street, you didn't even have to run for that landline phone in your kitchen.

  • 2) It needs a "killer app":  Namely, the one title that not only demonstrates what the format can do that the others can't, it so tantalizes you as a must-own, you would gladly make the sacrifice to try the new format, rather than suffer through seeing it on your own existing inferior one--A generation of teens suddenly devoted themselves to DVD with fierce passion once they learned that The Matrix would not be premiering on VHS.  
And if you had that '10 passion for Avatar, there was no way in heck you would be watching it on "flat" 2D Blu-ray if you knew a real 3D version existed for the home.  (And just how Fox and Panasonic, among others, nearly sank the Blu3D industry overnight by holding their killer-app "hostage" to hardware sales is something for another column.)

  • 3) It needs to be accessible:  Very few people go to the January CES and buy the latest curved 4K UHD screen for four-figure sums simply because it's New or Looks Cool.  Most people are, I think the proper word we can choose is, stingy.  They don't want to buy new things, especially if it's a technology that followed too quickly upon the last one and didn't allow the previous honeymoon to cool--Even with the FCC-ordered changeover to digital HDTV in '08, Blu-ray had quite an uphill battle coming eight years after we all suddenly realized "why" we should change our lives and throw out our VHS tapes for DVD, and when Blu3D came out two years after Blu-ray, after most of us had literally just paid for our 2D Blu player and flatscreen, there was some...stubborn resistance.  
What most hesitant adopters want is a "test run"--They want to be able to experiment with one part of the technology and use it on the equipment they already own, and if it's got that sell, it'll hook them into making the upgrade.  New standalone hardware players, which hardware companies believe will make them an instant phenomenon, is usually the very LAST thing to be bought, and only by those already converted through other low-tech means.  DVD knew this when most users were watching those strange new disks on their desktop and laptop computer disk-drives--turning it into the first portable movie technology--and a generation was hooked early when more kids with Playstation 2 game consoles were playing the disks than early player owners.  Even the Blu-ray vs. HDDVD war of '05-'08 soon descended into a gamer-war between the Playstation 3 and the X-Box console owners, and gamer passion can get a little out of hand sometimes.

Okay, there's the obstacle course, laid out nice and pretty.  How does locker digital-to-own stack up?
- Accessibility--YES:  This seems to be the main selling point, as most everyone has a smartphone or tablet computer by now, with an OS that at least has some app for Amazon, Google or Vudu.  It's the bragging-rights of taking video on the go, even if there's not as many commuter situations that would involve an hour of staring at one's tablet (in bed, OTOH...)--And most airline flights do not offer enough wi-fi to stream the movies in-flight, in which case most have to download the entire movie before takeoff, or just bring the laptop with the DVD drive.  But at least users can get a taste.
- Killer app--NO:  With digital offering only a scaled-down "travel" option of disk titles already available, with no bonus features and less scene access, there is no carrot on the stick.  Either you own the movie already, or you don't care how you get it.  
And the big one:  
- Solves problem--No.  No, no, no, no.  NO.  The complete and utter lack of an everyday technical problem for digital libraries to solve has made any attempt to even think of a problem sound like First World Problems.  If we happen to like them, that's fine, but Tastes Great did not singlehandedly wipe Less Filling off the face of the earth.  Digital libraries have found their niche in travel trips where a data-plan smartphone or tablet would come in handy, but have not demonstrated one single technical advantage for the in-home living room beyond "My shelf looks cluttered" or "Not wanting to leave your chair to change disks."  Disk users who have used their digital codes on long trips have accepted the idea of co-existence--and that home and travel entertainment each need the right tool for the right job--but in the business world of corporate studios, there is no concept of Co-existence...Only the Darwinian fear for one not to be crushed by the other.
Which is why Warner, in their ad copy for Flixster, has literally had to INVENT problems for digital to "solve"--Otherwise, it would be a solution without a problem.  If we do not believe, like the hypnotist's willing subject, that every disk we buy is a millstone material possession around our Millennial neck, that we lie awake at nights fearing they will break or be misplaced, or that we watch movies and TV shows everywhere we go, but groan in frustration at how we can't tote our entire living-room shelf with us and wish someone "could take care of it" for us, then the pro-digital argument that physical disks are "Losing popularity with the public" disappears like smoke into thin air--As do Warner's hopes of never having to risk selling a mean-ol' wide-retail non-MOD Blu-ray at Best Buy ever again.  If we, in fact, have no actual demonstrable, tangible reason to hate physical Blu-ray disks, then, um...I guess we don't hate them or want to get rid of them, do we?  Seems to stand to reason.  Aren't we such spoilsports for not playing along?

How about digital Rental?:
- Accessibility--YES:  Titles can be rented on existing set-top, phone/tablet and TV smart-apps for Amazon, iTunes and Vudu.
- Killer app--Not as such:  Some titles may be promotionally available a week or month before their disk release, but rarely offered for rental.
- Solves problem--YES:  A rental is a movie we probably haven't seen yet and don't know whether we want to keep, and if we do, we'll buy it later if we feel like it.  And if being able to enjoy the movie with a click, and then eliminate it with a click, is easier than making a separate Redbox or library trip to return a disk, that's just as handy in the summer as in a snowy winter where we might not want to make that second trip.  If digital gives us our fear of "What if the title disappears later?", well, not having it around later was pretty much the idea all along.

Now, y'see, here's where the confusion gets even worse--How does the monthly SUBSCRIPTION STREAMING of Netflix or HuluPlus make it past the test?
- Accessibility--YES:  Subscription services had no actual device of their own, and only came in on existing set-top boxes such as AppleTV, Roku, new generations of smart-TV's and Blu-ray players, and of course the major game consoles of PS3 and X-Box.  If you had something to play disk, it's likely you already had something to play Instant Netflix, and if you were using the mail service in the early days, you already had a subscription to the streaming service. 
- Killer-app--POSSIBLE:  I hesitate to say "Yes", as I'm not a fan of original subscription series (I prefer movies on the services, myself, if you can still find them) but if Daredevil or Man in the High Castle influenced your main reason in choosing Netflix over Amazon Prime, or vice versa, or both, then their work was done.  You were hooked into buying something you couldn't get anywhere else.
- Solves problem--YES:  Ohh, did it ever.  Up to that point, network cable was like the weather--Everyone complained about it, but nobody could ever do anything about it.  It's one thing for the public to thumb their nose at cable networks losing their compasses and identity to become a half-dozen corporate masses of marketed reality shows, but now bring in the possibility to choose shows with no set start or stop time, and the writing was on the wall.  Suddenly, "Cutting the cord" became the new trendy term, and everyone started looking at their bill to see what exactly they were paying $99/mo. for, when the same shows were available for the one cover-charge of $10/mo. or less.  Never underestimate the combined customer forces of Angry and Stingy.

From what we've seen over the last few years, and studios have gotten a bit overconfident from, Subscription and Digital Rental have passed their obstacle tests and become replacement technologies while Redbox and network-cable paid the price.  Digital Ownership, it seems, couldn't quite pass its tests.  They're not quite the same thing as Rental and Subscription, you see, and can't quite measure up where it counts.
And that's why, apparently, from GfK's data, nobody likes it.  At least as much as they like the others.  As Charlie Brown once observed, statistics don't lie, but they do shoot off their big mouths a lot.

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