The Death of Physical Media?

A small section of my Blu-Ray/UltraHD Blu-Ray collection

With the news that Samsung intends to stop making any more Blu-Ray players, people are wondering whether this is a signal that physical media is gradually coming to an end, particularly with streaming and catch-up services becoming more and more popular. Netflix titles will forever remain on Netflix, right? Providing that you keep paying the subscription?

I would argue that the world still needs physical media. Film and TV studios still haven’t assured consumers that content they buy wholly digitally will remain with them for the rest of the lives (and beyond), and that you can play them in a format that is reasonably open and fair. I can vouch that this is a legitimate worry – I had bought a fair number of titles from the BBC Store when it was alive and well, and even then there was a very big problem:

Access to the BBC Store content was a mixed bag. If I recall correctly, you (eventually) had to use a dedicated BBC Store app. BBC iPlayer apps across different platforms could access it, but for the most part, I couldn’t view the content on my LG TV or any other device that directly connected to my TV. I couldn’t cast content to the TV unless I had a Chromecast. Which I didn’t. I’m pretty sure the platform was more open at the beginning and then slowly killed itself by limiting itself to certain platforms.

By the time BBC Store had decided to shut up shop, at least the BBC had the good grace to provide a refund or voucher for use with a rival service. But this didn’t make up for the fact that not all of the content was available elsewhere. Had I bought the content on DVD or Blu-Ray (albeit for a more substantial price), this situation would never have occurred.

Netflix and Amazon, on the other hand, are available on pretty much everything these days – even ancient Blu-Ray players. The problem that Netflix now finds itself is in interactive content. Its Bandersnatch interactive episode works with modern Netflix apps, with a few notable exceptions – the main one being Apple TV. I seem to recall reading that Apple doesn’t allow the use of Javascript within tvOS apps which is the reason why Bandersnatch isn’t available there.

Another indication that physical media is being looked over is that TV companies are seeming not bothering to make Blu-Ray versions available of their TV show season boxsets. Fox, or as I like to call them, 18th Century Dodo (because they are nearly always stuck in the past) released the first season of their excellent sci-fi/comedy series, The Orville, on DVD only despite broadcasting in HD. DVD is not high definition. Why on earth would anybody want to buy something that’s lower quality than what was originally broadcast?

Channel 4 has done the same with a season 1-4 boxet of their excellent comedy, Catastrophe. Yet you can stream it via HD and buy it in HD on services like iTunes. But there is no Blu-Ray release. Neither is there a Blu-Ray release for Danny Baker’s Cradle to Grave. A DVD release, yes, but if you want HD, you’ll need to buy it digitally from iTunes.

Now let’s talk about iTunes for a moment. It’s by far the best ecosystem for non-physical media if you like movies. Not so much for TV programs. iTunes offers movies (many of which now come in 4K resolution – albeit if streamed via an Apple TV – no 4K on Mac, iPad or iPhone) that come with the kind of extras that you’d see on physical media such as behind-the-scenes documentaries and audio commentaries. iTunes for TV shows rarely does this – if at all. The only TV show I have bought on iTunes which come with extras and audio commentaries was Breaking Bad – the Deluxe Edition (seasons 1-6), and even that was problematic. I had to disable Dolby Surround to listen to the episodes which have audio commentaries. You can only listen to them when the audio output is set to Stereo. This is not a problem for iTunes movies which set the correct audio channel through the use of a special menu which comes with the movie.

But even after all that, you’re still not guaranteed that the movies or TV shows that you’ve bought through iTunes are yours to keep forever. There is always the chance that a studio or broadcaster could remove their content from the store, and thus your library. A similar situation to Amzon’s Kindle books (which has happened, BTW). And this situation can apply to any digital movie or TV show retailer. There is nothing in the terms and conditions to stop a company from removing content from your virtual library. And nothing to say that you wouldn’t be compensated, either.

So if digital media is on the rise, it seems that it’s because we like the convenience. For me, this is true. I DO like the convenience it offers – especially iTunes. I can stream to my TV, iPad and iPhone without faffing around too much. I have over 348 movies on iTunes along with a few TV shows that I’d like to watch from the iPad or iPhone if I’m travelling. So I am heavily invested in it. But I’m equally invested in physical media too. I have an UltraHD 4K player from Sony which I think is marvellous. I have an extensive collection of Blu-Ray, UltraHD 4K Blu-Ray and DVDs. Some of which cannot be purchased digitally (Studio Ghibli is one such company which has never released its content on iTunes, for example). I did have an Oppo 203 UltraHD Blu-Ray player which was discontinued as they were moving away from the audio-visual industry. It was the leading 4K Blu-Ray player of it’s time, winning many awards.

But it’s disheartening that TV studios – and maybe even some film studios – don’t seem to care about what the consumer wants. I understand that mastering and duplication of physical media is expensive. But the consumer deserves a choice. A choice I didn’t have when HBO’s Silicon Valley stopped being made available via Amazon on Blu-Ray. DVD only. I had collected seasons 1 and 2 on Blu-Ray, and now future seasons weren’t going to be available in the definition that I want? Outrageous.

What I don’t understand is that it is easier to rip the likes of DVDs than Blu-Rays – they don’t take up much space. So why hasn’t efforts been made to phase out DVDs and replace them with Blu-Rays? Much effort has gone to publicise Blu-Ray as a superior quality format. It’s backwards compatible with DVD, so people’s collections will continue to work. Is it case that people don’t really care about resolution or quality? Why bother with 4K at all in that case? Should we just laugh at 8K and future resolution updates?

Are we in the battle of VHS versus betamax again? It sure as hell feels like it at times. In any event, I express my bitter disappointment at the likes of 18th Century Dodo (Fox), Channel 4 and HBO for their decision to release content on DVD only. I doubt they will be the last to do so, but one can hope the industry gives itself a bit of a kick up the arse to show commitment to all formats. I despise piracy, but I know that piracy isn’t going to stop regardless of whatever efforts are made. But if the TV and film studios don’t do something, the pirates are not only going to give people what they want, in the format that they want, but they’ll probably do a better job at presentation too.