When the stats on disc purchase came out at the beginning of this year, I found myself wondering about economic and generational differences that drive the decision to purchase a film, versus leasing it from someone like Amazon, versus just outright theft by downloading off a share somewhere.
At the time I started to write this post up, there were several conversations on entertainment sales and the interaction of steams versus discs, but here are a couple:
I continued to update, add to, and rethink this post on and off for a while. It is a long one, but there was a lot to cover. At this point, I realized I could keep adjusting it forever or just get it out there and write new ones as the landscape changes. So, with all that in mind, here we go…
For the record, I have well over 2400 discs, in my collection. I’ve been collecting them since the format first released. A significant number are now blu-ray, and a chunk of those also 3D.
I originally built up that collection like a starving man finding an unattended feast. When discs first came out, it was a chance to get to see a film or show that was no longer available… anywhere… other than a studio vault somewhere or from a topsite somewhere, if you had clue, bandwidth, and disk space to spare. That since has changed radically, but the habits remain.
So let me define the terms for the sake of this conversation
- Buying only covers physical discs or non-DRM’d files on a local drive.
- Leasing is any DRM’d file or available stream that is non-local. So, renting or streaming via Netflix or Amazon is the same as leasing… they’re just shorter term and may or may not involve physical discs. Many DRM’d files can be deactivated at will so are included in this collection. The idea is the same.
- Stealing is, well, stealing. That can be downloading files, VPNing to outside television feeds, peer-to-peer sharing, etc. Anything that actively circumvents the intended restriction of use either via geography or intended distribution. And if you want a really interesting insight as to how that all got started, read the New Yorker article: The Man that Broke the Music Business.
Streaming services have bridged a lot of the “lost” gap for shows and movies. More become available all the time as contracts and rights are worked out. But streaming still doesn’t cover the entire disc world (forgive me Mr. Pratchett) and contracts always have to be renegotiated over time, meaning things available today, may not be tomorrow. They really are being leased to you in exchange for a subscription fee to the larger service, which retains the right to offer or restrict the content or quality of the material they offer.
In this quasi-owned arena, leases for books, movies, and shows are becoming much more common for people, particularly younger audiences, who mostly don’t realize they are only leasing material. Amazon, Vudu, or any of the services have the right to just kill the stream (online or downloaded version) with little or no notice. They’ve already done so. ScribD and KindleUlimited can do the same for books.
But consumers younger than, say, 30 or so think of the world very differently. To overly generalize, to them it is all ephemeral. The digital world is intended to morph and evolve and, yes, occasionally vanish. Now, cut them off from the ‘net and you’d see them go into convulsions (again, yes, generally) but as long as there is some feed somewhere, they feel served.
So why, I asked myself, do I feel the need to own outright… as long as the technology allows me to view my discs? Why are fewer and fewer people purchasing discs when that is the only way to ensure quality and availability?
Certainly space comes into play. I have 5 DJ cases full of movies and shows. If they weren’t in those containers, I’d have a wall or four of jewel cases to contend with. As I also have over 5000 books, that would get crowded. Again, why the drive to hang onto these physical representations of entertainment and information?
To begin with, I do like the extras on discs (though changing, most streams do not include these), so that is one reason. I also prefer the quality of discs. I don’t live on a fibre line, so streaming is decidedly lower quality than my Oppo blu-ray. But that is only a part of it all.
Though it disturbs me, I am seeing a bit of an echo of the Great Depression mentality I saw in my grandparents and the Cold War fears of my parents. It is a version of hoarding against potential disaster. The assumption is that if the world goes tits-up, I’ll still have the material and information to help rebuild and repopulate the loss. It is absurd, of course, but it comes out of being raised in that atmosphere as well as living through 3 stock market crashes and seeing multiple wars spread across the globe… seemingly without end.
Books and discs capture and preserve the past, providing something tangible in my control rather than someone else’s. In the case of books, it is truly a preservation effort… many books disappear after only a few weeks. If you want to read them or share them with others, you have to own them. While more books are being made available digitally (and some with loaning rights) as a matter of course, that is fairly recent. And many of the books I do own are no longer available in any format. Even libraries have frequent sales to clear their shelves and storage for new material rather than pay to warehouse them.
Ultimately, though, the real question is why do so many folks feel the need or the right to steal content as so much of the current and legacy material is coming online? Certainly there is a generational thing where most younger adults and kids feel they have a right to content, regardless of which country it is licensed in or how it is distributed. While some of this is driven by entitlement, some is simply driven by the expectation of ease of access. You can look at web sites around the world, why can’t you see the shows and movies they’re producing as well? But copyright law and contracts have dragged far behind technology on this, leaving a gap.
Into that gap technology has made it easy to either download or stream by spoofing IPs. But producers still haven’t quite caught up despite the fact that after years of study, we know that making a lot of content easy to access and free often leads to more sales, not less. And even when the governments tried to resolve these issues, producers push back as they have recently in the EU (and eventually left it in a hybrid approach that will begin to break down the country borders).
Interestingly, there is a contradiction here of so many films being privately funded, via Kickstarter or Indiegogo or simply self-made, thus being directly marketed or sold to the purchasing/contributing public regardless of geography. Even the SEC is getting involved. But the desire to keep aspects of the studio system sacrosanct is rather entertaining. The studios are realizing the model is changing and even they are offering many films in day and date VOD and theater, though many folks still have limits on what they’d pay for such viewing.
One of the biggest, recent shifts in availability and breaking down of the structural walls was, after huge deliberation and teases, HBO finally announced their sojourn into a solo service… except it isn’t. They partnered with AppleTV and Sling for the first few months, which cuts out a huge chunk of people (only about 25M AppleTV devices are in the wild). It is a great deal for Apple and Sling, but a blow to getting the content more available. I’d been anticipating the new stand-alone service as I only have broadcast stations over my cable, but I’m not buying new devices to get HBO NOW. I will continue to go to friends or wait for discs to get my Game of Thrones fix (which is also the only current show I really care about on HBO). And you can still buy the whole season on iTunes for less than a 3 month subscription. For HBO, however, they see a real potential to turn the most pirated show in history into having more paying subscribers by cutting out one of the impediments: availability. As a stand-alone service, you don’t need to have premium cable TV in order to access. I think their price point is a bit high still, but the results will speak for themselves at the end of the first few months, I’m sure.
The general feeling is that content should be available to everyone, wherever they are, on whatever device they are using from TV to a mobile phone and everything in between. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be free. The biggest challenge remaining is really country borders and the potentially shattering of content into thousands of a la carte services. How many systems do you want to subscribe to in order to see the content you want? There is value in aggregation, though it does tend to put power into a few hands (yes, Comcast, I speak of you).
But back to geography. The US and the UK share a huge amount of content, but shifted in release from one another. But anyone who cares is aware of every release on either side of the pond. Those with the wherewithal will find a way to watch it as soon as possible. Generally this hurts the UK more as they’re selling adverts, but the US tends to air most UK shows on PBS which is 99% paid for by its viewers in advance; no commercials involved and as long as the station gets funding, no lost revenue. PBS in the States is probably safe for another decade as the generation supporting them isn’t as tech savvy and is happy to wait for their shows.
So to return to the original self-examination, why purchase? For me it really comes down to a confidence of control of the material. I like knowing that what I value will still be around so I can see or share it out without wondering if it will still be there. I see value in leasing, as there is plenty of material that seeing it once will be enough. I am opposed to stealing, but understand the frustration of geographic boundaries, in particular, that make no sense in a digital world. Clearly the law has to catch up to reality and market place needs to evolve to serve a near practical infinity of material to a population that craves streams like crack. As the lease side of the equation improves, and should my broadband actually become stable and useful, I can see relying on a service or two to provide the general entertainment I crave where ownership does not feel a necessity.
I realize I’m a bit of a freak… anyone out there working through these issues themselves?