News and activities at Norma Marion Alloway Library, Trinity Western University
July 02, 2015
The brief, wondrous life of the DVD: the necessary birth and inevitable death of an internet-era format
The people who brought DVDs into the world could never even agree on what the letters should stand for. It was initially suggested by some that they should stand for “Digital Video Disc,” while others behind the technology felt that “Digital Versatile Disc” would better reflect the many non-video applications of the development. Ultimately, the official position of the DVD Forum, the consortium of companies with ownership of the technology, is that DVD “stands for nothing.”
It’s a fitting acronym, then, for a technology so quickly fading into insignificance. DVD is on its way out. Twenty years after its invention, it’s rare to find new releases of DVDs that aren’t bundled with a Blu-ray of the same content. While new machines—PlayStations, Xboxes, etc.—will still play DVDs, thanks solely to the Blu-ray innovation of using the same equipment to maintain playability for the outdated format, it’s a disappearing medium, already halfway to the same graveyard that has claimed Betamax, VHS, Laserdisc, and HD-DVDs.
The popular understanding of the disappearance of the DVD is simple, and probably accurate: Digital storage technology is rendering hard copies of software and content obsolete. Being able to keep your music, movies, games, and books in your hardware system—or better yet, the cloud—is creating a concomitant desire to be done with yet another bulky material object. Obviously, fetishists for material goods will maintain the survival, however minimal, of the format. Just as there are those who celebrate the retro pleasures of vinyl or the cassette tape, there will be a home for DVD, even as Blu-ray eventually follows it to oblivion in the popular marketplace. The internet’s ability to keep everything online has stoked a fantasy of being able to contain all of our entertainment and arts in the digital netherworld, perpetually at our fingertips.
The irony lies in the fact that the internet isn’t merely the assassin of the DVD, but the progenitor, as well. Whatever their historical assessment, DVDs are primarily known for ushering in the era of bonus content. When people shop for DVDs in the store, often the first thing done is to flip the box around to see what special features the discs have to offer. A feature-length commentary track very quickly became de rigueur for the vast majority of home video releases. Interviews, outtakes, bloopers, alternate or extended scenes—these are all expected aspects of any film release, now. And none of them would have even been a consideration for inclusion in the ’80s. But by the end of the millennium, bonus features were almost the primary reason to buy DVDs. Entertainment Weekly’s review of the Fight Club release found the extra content so good, it named it the number-one must-own film in the format. (To be fair, some of that content is still pretty cool, even today: Fake MPAA screens and a faux-Fight Club merchandise catalog are clever no matter the year.)
That shift in expectations is due in large part to the single most significant invention of the last 50 years, and arguably in most of human history: the internet. When the World Wide Web started its march to ubiquity in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it allowed vast amounts of content to be available in the home of anyone who could afford a computer and a phone line. This was a massive transition from content storage in places with the space to handle it, like libraries, into the digital aether, available to anyone, anywhere, who could access it.
With that overwhelming influx of information and culture came the attendant desire to demand more from traditional outlets of entertainment. Now that anyone could access the news, stories, and information behind their favorite popular culture, it was incumbent upon the entertainment industry to find a way to deliver that content. And despite the fact that the home movie marketplace had barely existed for 10 years, it was a logical place from which to deliver more. Now that people could easily see bonus footage of, say, the stars of Evita gathering to record the soundtrack in England, that overflow of online content meant that movies purchased for the home began to carry the expectations of something more, as well.
The DVD was the result of that desire. A format that took the earlier technological innovation of CD-ROMs, but added five to 10 times the storage capacity, meant that VHS tapes, CDs, and the like could be improved upon in spades. A game or film that previously took multiple discs to store could now be housed in one single disc.
That space meant there was not only a desire for more content, but a means to deliver it. In November 1995, when the first DVD development was announced in a joint program between Sony and Phillips, it was immediately obvious that the discs would be able to hold more than just a movie. What to do with all that space? Like all innovations, it began with simplistic additions: menu screens to control subtitles, sound, picture, and the like. Soon, it was reasoned that viewers of movies might also like cast and crew bios, or lists of other movies they had been in—essentially sticking their IMDB page on a static screen that could be accessed via remote.
These developments quickly snowballed, resulting in content of a wide-ranging and multi various sort. Featurettes on everything from pre-production to release marketing to fan reaction are now a normal part of home video. Even digital copies of movies, which began life with the notable handicap of lacking these sorts of bonus features accompanying DVDs and Blu-rays, quickly caught on to the proven track record of extra content in appealing to consumers. Reviewers and fans will deride the much-scorned “bare bones” releases of films, and urge people to wait for the inevitable “special edition”—or at least the edition that includes a few minutes of the cast and crew discussing the “making of” the movie.
Indeed, the Criterion Collection, long the gold standard for film releases on DVD and Blu-ray, earned its reputation largely on the back of its dedication to the most extensive and cineaste-friendly bonus content. Much as theater owners look at better sound systems, 3-D technology, or Imax as a form of extra enticement for moviegoers to forego their increasingly sophisticated home systems, so too has bonus content been a way for the home video market to tempt people into purchasing TV shows and films they might otherwise refrain from purchasing.
In fact, the name for all these additional features is now somewhat of a misnomer. Bonus content long ago stopped being a “bonus” for consumers. It’s a requirement, as fundamental to the product as the toy inside a Happy Meal box. Few people would consider a “bare bones” edition of a movie to be an acceptable home video release. Fewer still would consider such a product worthwhile, though enough consumers still love being the first to own something—enough to make the continued production of such releases commercially viable, anyway. Yet as ever more of those instant gratification customers turn to illegal downloading to satisfy their wants, the incentive to make such shoddy first-pressing releases dwindles.
The internet didn’t create the capitalist desire for additional content, any more than Woolworth’s created the desire for free tote bags with the purchase of $50 or more worth of goods. But what it did do was open the door to the technological and cultural incentives to make it happen. Living in a world where additional content, so to speak, could conceivably be available (to anyone with internet access) in perpetuity meant that the items of popular culture and art that we brought into our homes required similar inducement. CDs included bonus tracks; books began carrying chapters from the author’s next release; slapping a five-minute blooper reel onto every copy of Dumb And Dumber was the least anyone could do, if they wanted to make the DVD an appealing product.
Now the DVD breathes its last, with more and more people purchasing online copies of mainstream entertainment, while film aficionados choose the superior quality Blu-ray as the last guard of the old hard-copy formats. It’s worth remembering that the scientific innovation and subsequent cultural landscape that is burying the medium is the same one that spawned its defining quality—the something extra. If anything, the DVD will stand as perhaps the first example of a mass format created, nurtured, and ultimately rendered obsolete by the digital transformation of culture. Those who in the future treat the discs the way current fans of outdated mediums treat 8-tracks and reel-to-reel players may have different, more sentimental or fetishistic reasons for adapting it. As capitalism responds to the crisis of finite resources in a finite world by literally creating new space in which to produce and store content, the DVD will mark the passing of an era. Call it the “blow into the cartridge” generation: a tangible format that still required tangible care.