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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

question of the day: How soon will physical DVDs disappear from general usage?

We’ll always watch movies, I suspect — at least until whatever apocalypse we’re in for hits and the electricity goes out — but I don’t think we’ll actually be watching them on plastic DVDs for very much longer. Netflix, the U.S.-based DVDs-by-mail rental outfit, recently expanded to Canada, launching the service there with a streaming-only option, and the company just opened that up to American subscribers, too. I jumped at it, because, frankly, while I’ve been streaming tons of stuff, sometimes on a whim (no waiting for a DVD to arrive!), I’ve had the same eight physical DVDs out from Netflix for months and still haven’t had a chance to watch them. The streaming-only subscription is a helluva lot cheaper: $7.99 per month versus the $50-plus I’d been paying for eight-out plus unlimited streaming. I’d pretty much only been taking advantage of the unlimited streaming anyway, and saving money is a good thing.

The business world seems to like Netflix’s move. From TheWrap last week:

Netflix stock jumped nearly 8 percent Monday on the company’s announcement that it will raise prices on its DVD rental plans but offer a new streaming-only option for $7.99 a month.

Though the news had been expected for some time, Wall Street responded enthusiastically. Shares of Netflix ended the trading day Monday at $188.32, up nearly nine percent.

Simon Calver, the CEO of LoveFilm, the British equivalent of Netflix, which also offers streaming and on-demand options, said recently:

We are going to be living in a hybrid world for the next five years or more, where physical DVD, digital and broadcasting all coexist alongside each other. It is really important that choices are given so that the consumer can change at the time that is appropriate for them. In the long term, most views will clearly be digital and online.

I wonder if five years is too pessimistic. I’m beginning to see a time for myself in the very near future when I may never have to buy another DVD… and I’m finding, as I clear out my apartment for my move to London, that it’s not hurting to get rid of lots of the DVDs in my library now: they’re simply not worth moving with me or putting into storage because the movies are so readily accessible whenever I want them.

But here’s another concern. A study in October found that Netflix streaming accounted for a whopping 20 percent of peak-hour bandwidth usage — and that was before the new, cheap streaming-only service. As mistermix at Balloon Juice notes, Net neutrality was a losing issue in the recent elections — “Every single candidate or incumbent who signed a net neutrality pledge (nearly 100) lost…” And so, mistermix worries:

I wouldn’t be surprised if Netflix were blocked by a big ISP at some point in the near future.

That was a month ago. As I was writing that previous paragraph, I got an email from activist site Credo Action asking me to sign a petition to stop cable provider Comcast from blocking Netflix, which it has been trying to do.

With all that in mind: How soon will physical DVDs disappear from general usage?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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