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Is Video Streaming Killing Blu-ray?

Will online streaming be the death of physical media?

Is Video Streaming Killing Blu-ray?

Jun 20, 2011 3:32 PM,
By Jason Bovberg

I read an interesting, alarming article last week called “Blu-ray: Death by Streaming” by Robin Harris, and even though it’s a short piece, it packed quite a punch for me, mostly in the very first line: “The Blu-ray gamble has failed: streaming has won the war for consumer’s hearts and minds. Blu-ray will limp along, but the action is in streaming.” I’ve written before about the benefits of streaming, and how it has affected my own thoughts and practices surrounding movie rentals, but I never took the additional step of pronouncing that streaming will prove to be the demise of high-definition media. Even as I write these words, that sounds insane to me, but there’s also a part of me that fears there’s truth in the statement.

Because, according to the article, “DVD/Blu-ray sales [are] down 20 percent from the year-ago quarter.” And as I’ve said before, there’s a sort of desperation in the disc market these days, with big-box retailers such as Amazon and Best Buy deep-discounting their media to almost ridiculous levels. I’m getting new, high-profile Blu-ray discs consistently for less than half of their suggested retail prices, and catalog titles are almost always less than $10—sometimes less than $5. Compare these prices with the premium price tags we saw just a couple years ago, and it’s clear that the studios want to pump discs into the market and jumpstart demand. (Indeed, some say that it was the initially high prices of Blu-ray that stunted its acceptance in a market that was already moving toward the convenience of streaming video.)

Hidden in that same line of the article is the admission that, “Yes, Blu-ray sales were up 10 percent.” These gains are no doubt due to the slashed pricing that we’ve seen, but surely that number also speaks to new penetration among consumers. Regardless of the lure of video streaming, it’s hard to get past the whole attitude of owning media. I don’t know about you, but I still place a large sense of value on my DVD/Blu-ray collection, just as I value my book collection. I love having a library of items to enjoy; heck, I even pay an absurd amount of attention to the packaging! I fear that this kind of mentality is pretty quickly becoming old-fashioned and silly. And wasteful. Not only can these discs be expensive—and boy, can they add up!—but they take up a lot of space. I might as well admit it: I’ll watch some of this media only once, and then it will simply gather dust and consume storage space.

So, sure, I love the appeal of streaming video, and I can see its advantages compared with those of bulky, inconvenient physical media. But there’s another factor in play, and that’s the quality factor. As much as I love the ability to sit down with Netflix streaming and call up a movie to watch at a moment’s notice, the fact is that the video quality isn’t even close to the 1080p high definition that Blu-ray can deliver. To say otherwise is laughable. Inherent quality isn’t there, and it’s also entirely dependent on the bandwidth of your Internet connection. Connections can fluctuate, and video quality suffers directly as a result. And I can’t even count the number of times my feed has stalled out and I’ve gotten the sometimes-endless progress bar awaiting reconnection. A few times, I’ve just shut off Netflix in frustration. (Sometimes even ultra-convenience isn’t as fabulous as advertised.)

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Is Video Streaming Killing Blu-ray?

Jun 20, 2011 3:32 PM,
By Jason Bovberg

The resolution of streaming images isn’t close to HD quality, and it doesn’t seem as if that standard will be reached anytime soon. But the question is whether most consumers even care. This reality boggles my mind, but I can’t help but recall the same debate that raged through the music industry over the past decade. In that war, too, consumers willingly traded quality (particularly in the forms of the fabulous high-def audio formats Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio) for portability, convenience, and volume—and now we’re in an era in which low-quality MP3 files reign supreme, to the detriment of disc, which has lost huge market value and is relegated to essentially a storage medium and a format that old folks (like me) still prefer.

Is the same thing happening with our beloved Blu-ray disc? I fear that it will be the long-term result. After all, according to the aforementioned article, “In North America, Netflix is now 29.7 percent of peak downstream traffic and has become the largest source of Internet traffic overall.” Streaming is growing incredibly quickly, far outpacing the modest gains that Blu-ray is seeing in the market. The author maintains that Blu-ray’s window of opportunity has slammed shut—alarming words for this media collector.

I find myself valuing both methods of media distribution, and for now I like to think that DVD and Blu-ray (like the CD) will continue to have a role in the home, albeit a smaller one. Maybe I won’t be able to always find my favorite obscure films on disc, but my hope is that disc-based media will continue to hold the distinction of the very best experience of visual art and entertainment, and that studios will continue to offer the kinds of added-value supplements that are another reason disc-based media will continue hanging on. When’s the last time you were able to stream a director’s commentary online? Heck, even the rental Blu-ray discs that Netflix sends in the mail typically lack the supplements of their consumer versions.

But, again, I have to remind myself to think from the point of view of the average consumer, and when I do, I begin to despair. The average consumer doesn’t care about supplements at all, just as he or she can handle low-resolution video even when stellar alternatives are readily available. Most consumers have never listened to an audio commentary, and most consumers have never heard of HDMI or 1080p or “enhanced for widescreen TVs.” It’s gibberish for them.

Which is why, yes, I think Blu-ray and DVD will ultimately fade out. For now, physical media will enjoy a brief period of relevance thanks to old-school collectors and videophiles. But in the end, it’s streaming that will hold sway. We should probably begin our efforts now to ensure that the quality of those downloads remains high.

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