Confessions of a Blu-Ray Collector: The Streaming Wars
One of the biggest problems that blu-ray collectors face is the future of physical media in the face of digital technology. With the popularity of netflix and the growing VOD market and digital downloads, not to mention illegal pirating, the future of the blu-ray/DVD market is certainly in jeopardy. Many people wonder what the point of having physical copies of movies is anymore. Well, I am here to put up a fight for the seemingly losing side of physical media.
Also, I want to make something clear: I do not fundamentally believe that Netflix and other streaming services are a bad thing. There are a lot of advantages to them, including the instant watch and low-cost. It also provides good exposure to lesser known films people may not have checked out otherwise. I even had Netflix myself for a couple short periods of time, and I would not necessarily rule out signing up again at some point. My main issue here is more with the idea of streaming services completely replacing physical media such as Blu-ray. That is the issue I am dealing with today.
Lines have been drawn and people are starting to take sides. The problem is that most people are absent-mindedly taking the digital side. Why? Its simple: convenience. Movies are there to be accessed right away. Not to mention that monthly subscriptions are cheap. These are certainly bonuses to movie-watching habits. But if I had to sum up streaming video in one phrase it would be convenience over quality. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I prefer the other way around myself. Here are my main arguments on why I take the side of physical media.
1) Video and audio quality
Streaming quality in the sight and sound of our favourite films is improving, but it still doesn’t hold a candle to the type of quality Blu-ray provides. Take Netflix for example, a service I tried out once I got my HDTV and stuck an ethernet cable into it. It lasted for about a month before I was fed up with the poor, choppy picture. Compared to a beautiful, crisp Blu-ray disc, its disgusting.
Now I’m sure you’re saying “But that’s Netflix Ian. There are other, better HD streaming services out there.” Well, I dont bother with the other services, so personally I cannot add my two cents. But through research, I found this comparison of the main streamers, in which none of them lives up to blu-ray. According to the guy who did the tests, they were all “roughly equivalent to an upscaled DVD.”
“But Ian, surely streaming is the way of the future. Advancements in streaming technology technology will only get better.” I wont deny this. But Blu-ray has a big advantage that streaming services have a long, long way to make up for: lack of compression. Blu-ray discs come with a lot of space, up to 50 gigabites (almost 10X what a DVD offered) which gives the picture and sound a lot of room to breath. As a result we get a smoother picture and fuller audio. If you don’t believe me, listen to the Balrog roar on the LOTR Bluray compared to the DVD.
However, the very nature of streaming services means that it has to get to your TV (or whatever device your using) somehow. That “somehow” is bandwidth. And with bandwidth comes compression. Streamers need to compress the video and audio files small enough to meet the bandwidth speed, which definitely affects the quality of the movie. And there’s not much that companies like Netflix can do about that. Blu-ray quality is still leaps and bounds above streaming, and because of compression likely always will be.
If you are looking for a more technical explanation, this webpage can provide you with far more details than I.
This is a big issue for collectors in the digital vs. physical debate, and what it comes down to is control. Who has control over your movies? And its really quite simple: if you have the physical disc on your shelf, you have control (barring theft, or fire, etc.). Your favourite movies are always available for your viewing pleasure. If you are streaming from an online catalog, or even if you have digital films stored in a cloud, you simply do not have control over what movies are available to you at any given time.
“But Ian, don’t you think you’re just being a paranoid conspiracy theorist?” Not at all, not when distribution/subscription licenses of major studios are in the balance. Its already happening. This link has a story from before Christmas where a Disney movie was pulled from Amazon Prime, despite the fact that customers paid for the digital version of the film. Not to mention the widely fluctuating online library of Netflix, your accessibility to films you love is dubious at best if you leave them to any form of digital storage that can be influenced by these companies.
This is where my worries really take hold. If these streaming companies have control over what films are available, wont they just pander to the masses? And if this is the case, does that mean that older classics, important films in the history of moviemaking, will be left behind? If you want to read more, check out this AV Club article.
3) The Collector’s Woe
Now to get a little more personal, I simply like having a collection. I like saying “this is my personal canon of films I feel are important and great”. And I like knowing that the option of watching them isn’t dependent on an internet connection and on the whim of licensing distribution politics. I like knowing that I have the best available product when I slip that disc into my Blu-ray player. I do not look forward to the day that goes away.
I am not completely naive. I know who is ultimately going to win this war, and I know that I am on the eventual losing side. I have been accused of living in the past. “Ian, streaming is the future. Just get on board.” No, not yet. I’m not going to choose an inferior pathway, when the superior is still available to me. And I’m going to continue to speak for quality and accessibility. But when I see people willing to watch a great Hollywood epic on a device that is the size of their palm, I know its a hopeless fight. Convenience over quality experience. That’s the world now.
If digital is the future, what I hope will happen is that streaming is simply a stepping stone to personal digital libraries. Granted, this will require a lap in digital storage to maintain a collection of downloaded movies, but that shouldn’t be a problem. What I am worried about though is that the cloud option dominates (again, because of the convenience of not having to use your own storage), and we collectors will be forced to give over control of our access to this wonderful world and history of film.