Rattling locks

We own something north of 500 movies. About 80% are kept on some form of DVD; the rest are VHS cassettes.

We used to keep the DVDs in a Sony player that could hold up to 400 individual discs. At first, that provided a reasonably nice set-up. Every disk had its own numbered slot, and movies and TV series went from the package into the carousel, avoiding the pesky fingerprints that can mess up a video signal.

Over time, things grew more complicated. Dutifully alphabetized, the DVDs in the box were easily searchable, until new movies came along. Then new lists were made, and every year or so the box was re-alphabetized, a project that ultimately consumed a weekend.

As networks and studios expanded the sale of some TV series, an entire season might be spread across seven or more discs. Eventually, the 400-DVD changer was full, prompting offline storage in binders with soft sleeves. A second organizational challenge started.

Then came Blu Ray. The box was built when DVD was the standard, and the old technology had no idea what to do with the newer formats. We started playing those movies on a PlayStation 3 console, launching it using hand controllers. To help us keep track, Blu Ray movies had their own binder, as well as the requisite alphabetization.

Television technology improved, too. Two years ago, we got a high-definition display that revealed the limited resolution of the signal from the 400-DVD box.  Rather than use composite video with the new display, we connected the PS3 with HDMI cables and abandoned the changer.

Around this time, we also switched the Netflix subscription from discs in the mail to online streaming using that same PS3 console. The volume of stuff, coupled with the work required to organize and maintain it, made us think that renting movies might be a better option for us.

Now, almost anyone who uses Netflix will attest that the service is better for older movies. Studios have been slow to sign on to the service, and networks like HBO have pushed pretty hard to maintain exclusive rights for first-run broadcasts. Earlier this month, Universal agreed to extend its HBO agreement until 2022, blocking Netflix for the next decade.

No one has a crystal ball for the media landscape in 2022, but it’s hard to imagine that fixed-offer subscription models will persist. To support on-demand and mobile viewing, HBO has developed HBO GO!, but access to that service still starts by verifying that you’re a television-based subscriber.

Of course that will evolve, but how quickly will HBO (or any other subscription-access network) with a lock on supply move to undermine its own revenue model?

That answer is also unknown, but it’s reasonable to expect a healthy if not vigorous defense of the old model, at the expense of innovation. You see this today with over-the-air broadcasters’ opposition to Aereo, a service that provides consumers with internet access to televised content.

As a result, the things media technology can do for us compete with a whole host of possibilities we’re not yet allowed to try. A patchwork quilt of solutions and restrictions frustrates a whole host of users, laying the groundwork for yet another war on piracy.

This observation comes from a legitimate consumer, one who paid for all of those discs and cassettes. Over time, I’ve been taught to avoid buying because studios almost always charge for the upgrade when formats evolve. As we’ve seen, formats always evolve.

So why does a publishing consultant write at great length about movies? I think there’s a lesson here, one that publishers could smartly support.

I subscribe to almost 20 periodicals. Services like Next Issue cover only a small cross-section of those publications. And I own literally thousands of books, shelved (more or less) neatly in almost every room of my house.

Digital versions of most of this content already exist. Making credible versions of the ones that aren’t yet digital is not rocket science. But I’m not going to buy the digital versions all over again, and I’m not going to buy a service from each periodical or book publisher. I want my own content locker, accessible and searchable across all the media I buy.

The technology to support this kind of solution exists today, but it remains hamstrung by publishers who limit or deny access to their content catalogues. We’re (almost) comfortable selling eBooks, but that’s not the next wave. I think it’s about meaningful access.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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