The necessity of physical media seems incongruous with the times we live in. After all, iTunes is now the largest seller of music in the US, and they don’t have a single CD or LP on offer. All of the music they sell is in bits. You download it directly to your PC, and if you have an iPod, you can carry it with you very conveniently. I’m a big proponent of digital distribution for music; for me, it’s something to listen to while doing other things (driving, cleaning the house, writing), so the trade-off for going digital (compressed, lossy music) doesn’t bother me.
I’m even looking forward to the day when any song you might desire just exists on the “cloud” we call the Internet. Much like Gmail has taken e-mail from the desktop to the cloud, it’s not hard to imagine needing only a PC or an Internet-connected portable device to gain access to the vast majority of the world’s music.
So why don’t I also want movies to follow this model? I’m not a particular fan of having physical media. I don’t need shelves of DVD and BD cases taking up room in my modest home. While grabbing movies from the cloud seems like it would be ideal, there are a number of reasons why I think losing physical media would be a tragedy for movie buffs.
The biggest reason is also the most obvious: while I don’t mind compression when it comes to music, I can’t stand it when it comes to video. Digitally-distributed movies can’t match the quality of Blu-ray, and visual artifacting is noisome and unwelcome. True high-definition content would result in extremely large file sizes, and our Internet capacity in the US can’t deliver that kind of content to everyone’s homes. As we move forward and more and more people start streaming standard-definition video from sources like Netflix and Hulu, bandwidth caps are going to become a larger and larger problem. It’s one thing that downloading a heavily-compressed, 720p movie file is an inferior experience to just renting a BD and sticking it in your player, but if even a fraction of the people with HD televisions start getting their media via the Internet, service providers would start cracking down on the amount of bandwidth those consumers could use. ISPs already don’t like the amount of bandwidth YouTube uses; a 50GB HD movie every weekend would get your Internet service taken away or throttled.
Another huge disadvantage is Digital Rights Management. Unlike the music industry, which has moved away from DRM, the movie industry is still committed to this outmoded idea that the best way to fight Internet piracy is to punish the legitimate customer. Any movie file you download now can only be used by certain devices, can’t be easily moved from device to device, and relies on the largess of the provider to continue working. When you buy a DVD or BD, you own that disc and can watch it in any player you please. As we’ve seen time and time again, DRM restricts your fair-use rights, and once a company decides keeping its authentication servers online is too expensive, you lose access to all the files it’s sold you. Customers who bought music from Wal-Mart and didn’t jump through hoops to strip the DRM will very soon lose that library of music.
Lastly, BD movies typically include a variety of extra features. As a hardcore movie buff, I’ve spent many hours watching documentaries and listening to directors’ commentaries. The digital downloads of today are not only inferior in picture and sound quality; they don’t give you a deeper look at the film. Listening to an auteur tell you the process behind the cinematography, color choices, casting, blocking, editing, and so on is a priceless treasure. Can you imagine if Capra or Hitchcock had had the opportunity to walk us through their great works? Beyond the special features, even seemingly simple things like closed captioning are being neglected by today’s download services. My hearing is pretty shabby, and when films have a muddy center channel, I frequently rely on CC in order to enjoy films.
So what do you guys think? Am I a luddite who refuses to yield to progress? I look at the future of streaming media, and I see my successors watching 2001 in a YouTube window, and I weep.
Next time, I’ll be taking a look at Blu-ray’s place in the marketplace. Can an HD format take hold when many consumers are watching standard-definition satellite programming stretched to fill their HD set’s wider aspect ratio without realizing that anything is even amiss? Studies have shown that these people think they are watching HD programming, when what they are watching looks significantly worse than if they were just using an old standard-definition tube television.