Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Physical Media Comeback?

People have argued that the DVD, the CD, and the paper book are dead.   But are they?

We recently signed back up for Netflix's DVD service, for two DVDs a month.  It doesn't cost much, and it allows us to view more recent movies that what is on Netflix's streaming service.  Funny thing, too, was that Netflix wanted to spin-off the DVD rental service and everyone thought it was dead.  But I think it may have new life, as there are just some things you can't get through streaming these days.

While Netflix streaming is still kind of cool, over the years, their catalog of movies and television shows has changed.   More and more content is second or third run movies, old television shows, oddball videos you've never heard of, and increasingly, content made expressly for Netflix.  Online competitors have started up - competitors who were once the content providers for Netflix.

And what is on Netflix one day, is missing the next - with little or no explanation.  Netflix is less and less a library of movies to watch and more and more of a quasi-pay-per-view channel with a flat pricing.   You can watch all you want - of whatever it is they have this month.  And whatever it is they have this month is often crap.

And of course, Netflix is now the World War II channel.   It seems that half the content is Nazi-related.   If you scroll through what's popular or what's trending, Hitler's smiling face looks back at you, over and over again.

What's up with that?  But I digress.

We were told by the powers-that-be that streaming was the next big thing and that Cable and physical media were dead.   Cable is down for the count, as they really don't seem to understand why no one wants their product anymore.   Like GM executives in the 1970's asking California dealers "when are people in California going to wise up and stop buying those stupid little Japanese cars?" the Cable business seems to believe their product is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and that the customers are wrong for disconnecting.

"They'll come crawling back, any day now!   You'll see!"  I am sure they say this to one another.

But the problem with cable is the staggering amount of advertising - about 50% of program time on many channels (and indeed many channels are just ads all the time).  Plus the ads are so loud - louder than the programming.   Plus, they bundle so much crap into the "basic" tier, that the prices are edging up into the three-figures every month (and four-figures annually) even if you don't want MTV and ESPN.   Some cable companies are starting to offer "a la carte" pricing, but the trend has yet to catch on.

Basic basic cable, with no frills, is basically useless.   You can get the same dreck off-the-air with a inexpensive digital antenna, if you are in a major market.  And that's free.

And digital streaming has taken away a lot of cable's thunder.   We watch television differently now, selecting what to watch, mostly commercial-free, rather than just "seeing what's on" and then being blasted with over an hour of commercials in the process.

Cable, on the other hand, made their product more and more toxic and just assumed that people would keep watching as they had no other alternative.    But eventually, people reach a tipping point, where they get sick of all the ads and just shut it off.  I know I did, well over a decade ago.   No TV was better than TV.   Still is.

As for Netflix, well, there are some issues with the streaming service.

Don't get me wrong - streaming is here to stay.   But as more and more studios start to pull content from Netflix and try to start their own competing services, the glory days of streaming are behind us.  The early days, when you could get the entire STARZ catalog on Netflix (oh those were the days!) are gone, when the STARZ contract expired.   And now Hulu wants a slice of the action, and some studios, such as Universal, have a channel on YouTube (with a lot of the back catalog for free, but the new stuff on pay-per-view).  Others, such as Comedy Central and Fox, have their own online streaming services (Fox requires that you be a paid cable subscriber in order to watch - irony).

Some wags have pointed out that if you sign up for all these digital streaming services, you might have a combined bill that rivals your old cable bill.   But of course, you'll have far fewer ads, and still you can select what to watch rather than seeing what is on (without having to dick around with some DVR).

But it got me to thinking, is physical media dead?   I think not, and for a number of reasons.   In fact, physical media can be a real bargin for the cheapskate in all of us.

First, if you want a new release, you have to either go see it in a theater, or pay for it on pay-per-view via cable.  But you aren't going to find it online, particularly not on Netflix.   You can buy the DVD or Blu-Ray when it comes out shortly after it hits Pay-per-view, or rent it from RedBox or get it on Netflix DVD service.   In terms of new releases of major motion pictures, physical media is the way to go.  In many cases, you can buy the DVD for less than the cost of one pay-per-view viewing.

Second, you can recycle it.   If you buy a DVD of a movie for a few bucks, you can then sell it at a garage sale, or even online on Amazon or eBay.   You can give them to friends, or swap or loan them out or whatever.   You own the media and you can do what you want with it, other than put on a public performance.  A streamed video, you watch once, period.

With CD's this effect is even more pronounced, as once you own a CD of music, you can rip it to your hard drive, put it on a memory stick or your cell phone or whatever device you want.  You can play it in your car via memory stick (or even upload it to the hard drive in the car stereo) and again, you can then sell the CD to someone else, or loan it to a friend, or whatever.   Of course, here it gets a little trickier from a Copyright law standpoint.   Technically, you can copy a CD to your iPod or other device or whatever to play it for your own amusement.   Re-selling the CD and keeping a copy is arguably piracy, however getting caught is not very likely.

Which brings up an interesting point.   Streaming music online is much easier to detect from a piracy standpoint - and many a teen has been busted for uploading music to file-sharing sites.   I doubt anyone has been busted for giving their copy of a CD to a friend (or indeed, selling it) after ripping it to their hard drive or iPod or iPhone or whatever.   Both are acts of piracy, one is easily detectable and easily prosecuted, the other is nearly impossible to detect.

Third, physical media is often cheaper.   You can buy used CDs and DVDs at a garage sale or thrift store for a buck or two.   The local library lends them out - which is free, a price we can all live with.   I was chagrined to see on Amazon the other day that a book I was looking at was $12.99 as an instant download to my Kindle, but that the actual physical copy of the book was only 99 cents plus a couple bucks shipping.   Why pay more for digital content, particularly when digital books are often poorly formatted and whatnot?

And while it lasts, our local library still has books they lend out for free to anyone.

Again, you buy a book, you own it.  When you are done reading it, you can give it to someone, sell it, donate it to the library, or whatnot.   A lot of used booksellers are not going broke just yet, but in fact doing more business than before by selling through Amazon, which gives them a worldwide audience for their product.

In terms of resolution and performance, physical media often has online streaming or digital downloads beat.  Like I noted above, a physical book is easier to read than a Kindle, although bulkier to carry around.   Online books are often badly formatted, and I notice often have typing errors, probably due to some character recognition software bugs.

Note also that when it comes to books, the selection of physical books is far greater than those offered for download.  Rare and out-of-print books, limited editions and small runs, as well as vanity press, are not represented online, and likely never will be.  They can be found on Amazon in physical form, often for only a dollar or two.   The "latest best seller" on the other hand, often goes for $10-20 or more.

DVDs and in particular Blu-Ray discs are going to provide better picture and sound and sync than online streaming.   Unless you pay a lot of money for top tier internet service, chances are, you can't stream in HD and sometimes (particularly with Netflix, which uses Silverlight) you end up with sync problems in the first few minutes of a show.   Physical media doesn't have this problem, provided it is handled properly and not scratched or damaged.

There is, also, I guess, the tangibility issue.   No, I am not one of those people who wants paper bills every month, so I can write checks and put stamps on envelopes.   And I am an early adapter of streaming (I guess more than 10 years now, at least).   I was a little slow to get into the Kindle, but my 1st generation model is still going strong.

But when I see some local band or group, and they are selling their CD during the intermission, it is much more fun (to me, anyway) to get a copy of the CD, autographed by the performer, and put $20 in their tip jar.   Downloading their music to a pod device just isn't as interesting, although I guess these days, fewer and fewer performers are burning CDs anymore

Will physical media go away?   Not for a while, I think.   You still see "new releases" being sold in Wal-Mart for $10 to $20, and of course all those bins of $1 to $5 discs, some of which are diamonds in the rough, and others of which are just dreck.  Music CDs, on the other hand, have largely vanished.

Apple has made a big deal about taking the DVD-ROM drives out of their laptops, forcing people to either rely on memory sticks or the cloud to offload data.   Of course, you can plug an external hard drive or DVD drive into your MacBook, if you want to watch a DVD on it.   And they are pretty cheap, too.

And maybe that is why physical media will stick around for a while.   I think a lot of people resent being forced into a new mode of operation.   Windows 10, for example, doesn't want you to run Microsoft Word, but instead subscribe to it as an online cloud service.   This sounds like a great deal for Microsoft, less so for the individual.   (Of course, Open Office from Apache is still available online as a free download.)

But physical media will act as a check and balance to these new modes of operation.   The streamers and digital data purveyors cannot arbitrarily raise prices, if the physical media versions are still available, and available in many cases, for a lot less money.

And hey, the kids at Urban Outfitters are making a big deal about playing old vinyl records.   Who knows?  Maybe in 10 years, the kids will play CDs just to be retro and ironic.

Save your CD collection!   Let's face it, you blew it last time around when you tossed out your old record collection.   Maybe this time......

(Just kidding, I sold all my vinyl and CDs at garage sales ages ago).