Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Busted Block: The End of an Era

On September 23rd, Blockbuster Inc., the video rental company, filed for bankruptcy, ending one era and beginning another. Blockbuster is saddled with over $900 million in debt and has been in decline for the last few years due to the rise of mail-based rental companies like Neflix, On-Demand services from cable and satellite TV companies, and cheap rental kiosks. Blockbuster has been closing locations by the hundreds and old-fashioned brick and mortar based movie renting is on its way to the grave.
There was a time, not all that long ago, when people would venture out to the video store, browse the shelves, read the plot summaries on the back of the boxes, and select a movie or two to take home for the next few days. It was a family affair, parents often taking their kids out to find something to watch together in the living room. But times have changed. It’s an “on-demand” age now.

While Blockbuster is working out a deal with creditors to allow its doors to stay open (for now), the days of being able to go to a mainstream video rental house are numbered. They will operate with only a few physical locations and focus on a digital business going into the future. Digital is the new videotape.

Now it’s more common to simply click through your cable menu screens to select a movie to watch instantly on one of your three flat screen HDTVs, or to scroll through your Netflix queue to see what to bump up to the top so all you have to do is walk to your mailbox to grab the latest release. Netflix also has an Instant View option which allows you to stream movies and television episodes on your computer. This feature also works through some videogame systems like Nintendo’s Wii or through Blu-ray players hooked up to the internet. There’s also an increasing number of automated kiosk rental stations, such as Redbox. For about a dollar you can drive to the nearest Redbox machine and select a title from a list of new releases to be returned the next day.

For the consumer, these are all positive developments. Advances in technology allow viewers to have access to a greater number of titles with dramatically improved quality from the days of VHS tapes on 4:3 SDTVs, often for a lower price. You get to see exactly what you want, exactly when you want it. But could there be any downsides to this new digital, on-demand marketplace?

In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t all that long ago when there were only three major television networks and the only movies you could watch at home were the ones the networks decided to run. It wasn’t until the 80s when VHS broke into the market, and up until then consumers had no real choices if they felt like watching a film at home. But it was this lack of choice that fostered a shared national culture. The entire country watched the same shows and saw the same movies, including older classics. Perhaps it’s easy to see the rise of on-demand media as purely beneficial, giving people real control over something in an otherwise stressful, modern life. But these benefits do come at a cost.

The fibers that bind Americans together are tearing. Politics are becoming more extreme at both ends of the spectrum, and part of the reason for this is because people are increasingly exposed to only the media they choose, directly. Instantly. While we have much easier access to media we immediately desire, it’s becoming much more difficult to be exposed to ideas we don’t already agree with, or to randomly discover a great film just because it’s the only thing playing on TV that night or because you stumbled upon the box at the video store. It might not be much, but think about that the next time you’re ordering a movie on-demand, instead of taking a trip to your local Blockbuster.

No comments:

Post a Comment