Recent research reports from Pew Research Center (Library Services in a Digital Age) and The Digital Entertainment Group (2012 Industry Data Report) suggests the public has become comfortable living in a device-agnostic world. We have been trained by years of format dominance (LPs, cassettes, CDs, VHS, DVDs, etc.) to think in terms of media-format monotheism. But the technological climate is different now and we’re finally thinking of the currently diverse access landscape as an achievement on its own. There is no sense in denying or supporting a media on party grounds – as though it were a religion or political candidate – when there are clearly circumstantial benefits (and shortcomings) in each format case. We continue to be at a very unique time in the world of home entertainment. While we are trained to look for a dominant media delivery method, if the present situation has taught us anything, it is that there is a time and place for each method. An open and equal opportunity market share (balanced by each particular method) dictates a very ergonomic and consumer “taste” driven a la carte marketplace. There is no clear cut “winner” in terms of best service for any of the delivery methods , but rather circumstance dictates the service needed.
Marketing and customer service is again playing a large role in our current technological format battle between DVD/Blu-ray (in the hard copy camp) and streaming video (as the “live” feed competition). Before we begin discussion on this though, it should be noted that any notion of a format “war” has been somewhat imposed upon us by companies such as Netflix that have drawn lines in the sand between the mediums suggesting that it is one or the other. This stance reflects less of an actual ultimatum than a marketing ploy to impose a sense of urgency. In defiance, recent reports actually have hard copy and streaming sales as having risen in tandem (Blu-ray discs are up 10%, homes adding players are up 7%, Ultraviolet – representing nine major motion picture content providers – accounts have doubled since June 2012, and EST (electronic sell-through)and VOD (Video on Demand) is up 29% since 2011.
On the surface (or rather in the moment – as that is where streaming excels) to the consumer, convenience may trump lack of quality. When you want to watch a movie, quality and performance are the trump cards. How we prioritize these fields depends upon many different scenarios, based primarily on the setting in which we wish to access. The evolution to streaming is less about quality than it is about accessibility and the financial cost of distribution. as has been the case going back to the beginning of data transfer times, lack of a substantial amount of bandwidth prevents there from being a higher universal quality standard, so streaming currently doesn’t transmit in full HD 1080p. The dilemma then becomes that we have movies that cry for the best possible display but a delivery method that can’t quite deliver.
Instead of thinking of this transition as a format “war,” the issue may be more in our conceptualization of the “problem.” Maybe there is no problem at all. DVD/Bluray are stable and steady hardcopy performers which transmit in full 1080p HD (as well as 3D) that will showcase your HDTV’s potential . However, they are less portable in quantity and their playback vehicles are bulkier and most often not built to move. Streaming, on the other hand, is all about “on the go,” being playable virtually anywhere a healthy signal can transmit, though at loss of resolution (in order to swim fluently within most bandwidths must transmit at a sub-HD 480p or lower rung HD 720p) and a perpetual cost for connection services.
The Library Anomaly – Where do they fit in?
Until Digital Entertainment Group (DEG’s) most recent report proved otherwise, most libraries stood incongruent to most media figures as circulation statistics for DVD/Blu Ray continue at extremely high rates. In many cases DVD/Blu Ray circulation far supersedesother circulating materials – and accounts for a large representation of library budgets. Often times the numbers are at an all time high – circulating over 2 million DVD/Blu-ray discs a day! 
So what does this mean? Why do libraries stand akimbo to the retail model or market indicators? Will the library’s inability to find a suitable entertainment-based streaming service result in an elimination of home entertainment services? It’s tempting to say to collection developers – being rightfully discerning with the public’s money and investment – that it’s all about the money, but this is not fully realizing the context. It is less about economics and climate than it is an available and worthwhile product. If there were a consistently performing, extensively catalogued service that patrons could access in a satisfying way at home or away, libraries would be on board in a flash.. But the landscape isn’t there yet for institutions so the conservative answer is to stick with DVD/Blu-ray.
Streaming as a technological function isn’t anything new (its current prominence is the result of the improved mobility in accessing networks) with its creation as a way around the present issue of bandwidth capacity limitations. It has always taken a long time to transfer memory-heavy media, and streaming was adapted during dial-up times as a way to watch video while it was being transferred. There are two ways to access media, by locally stored or hard copy, or by live stream. And while currently sexy because of the novelty of being able to access entertainment elsewhere, ultimately it is just another approach: an answer, but not necessarily the answer. In not-so-certain economic and technological times, viewers have gotten savvy. Enter A la Carte, as an approach philosophy suggesting that there is a time and a place for each media format access method. Certain delivery methods excel in certain scenarios and they in turn influence which devices are used to access them.
Libraries, sitting somewhat on the sidelines watching new companies offer new and fun sounding access services, are no doubt eager to take part in the excitement but it isn’t time just yet. And that’s not a bad thing. A library friendly distribution model will come, and by that time many kinks will have been hammered out (conveniently availing room for all the new ones naturally). Whether the future is in streaming or some a la carte style the present is still in DVD/Blu-ray. For libraries it’s just the truth.
- DEG’s Year-End 2012 Home Entertainment Report: http://www.degonline.org/pressreleases/2013/Year_End_2012%20cover%20note_FINAL_1.8.13.pdf
- OCLC – How Libraries Stack Up 2010: http://www.oclc.org/reports/pdfs/214109usf_how_libraries_stack_up.pdf