Down with Digital: Why You Should Support Physical Media

Cal tells us why the old ways are the best when it comes to digital studio distribution and “Netflix tax.” Surely not, Australia?

Over the past few days, a few rather large events have occurred that you might have missed. For starters, Fox have announced that they will no longer release The Simpsons on physical media, offering only a digital copy of ownership for all future seasons. And, secondly, with Netflix at last reaching Australia a few weeks ago, the Aussie government, in their infinite wisdom, are now pushing for a 10% “Netflix tax” on iTunes.

Let’s address the Netflix tax to start with. The concept is insulting for many reasons. First of all, Australian pricing on iTunes is generally 20-to-30% higher than American pricing in the first place, so Aussies are already paying more than they freaking should. Digital copies are meant to be the wave of the future and the general future of media ownership, but at the moment, it’s often cheaper to pick up a physical copy of your favourite movie or TV show on Blu-ray than it is to buy it on iTunes, and that’s fucking outrageous. The Star Wars digital copies just landed there, and the asking price in Australia for the whole sags is a preposterous $120 – that’s $20 a film! I own the Star Wars saga Blu-ray box, and you know what I paid? $70 for a brand new copy, with each movie on a disc and three extra discs packed with bonus content. Why the fuck would I pay another $120 for the digital versions, when I have no interest in buying the prequels again (I certainly wouldn’t watch them on my computer), and I have copies of the “Despecialised Versions” of the original trilogy on my hard-drive. The Blu-ray box has all the extras I need. Tell me again why I’d want to spend $120 on the iTunes bundle? (Yeah it has exclusive extras, but they aren’t worth fucking $120.)

Purchasing a digital copy stored on a cloud should cost significantly less than a physical copy, for a number of reasons. We’ll start with the really obvious one: you do not own an iTunes digital copy, in any way, shape, or form. If I buy a Blu-ray, I have the freaking thing. It’s a tangible thing I can touch and hold. It’s in my hands. It’s on my shelf. It’s on a disc. On iTunes, it exists on a freaking screen – it’s not tangible!

The argument in favour of digital over physical seems to be “an iTunes digital copy can be watched anywhere, on any device.” Yuh huh. Listen, I own 1500 movies across my DVD and Blu-ray collection, and hundreds more shows. Let’s just say that I want to watch a couple of those one day at home – I’d be downloading and/or streaming from the iTunes cloud for each movie, and that’s going to be a fair chunk of my monthly internet data allowance already chewed up. And good luck wanting to watch any such movies on the go – either you’re going to need an iPad or iPhone with a 3TB capacity to store all your shit, which doesn’t exist in case you were wondering, or you’re going to need a pretty hefty data allowance a month for your phone. And considering that an extra 25GB on my phone plan is an extra $250 a month, this option is not tempting. You know what is tempting for the Average Joe? Having a laptop with an external hard-drive containing hundreds of movies already pre-downloaded, each of which takes up like 1GB (most iTunes or Ultraviolet copies are 3 or 4GB), that they can watch at the touch of a button.

You know why I buy songs and albums over iTunes? Because a single song is a few megabytes, so I can keep them all downloaded and sitting on my iPhone all the time. And if I need to download it from the cloud, it doesn’t use up much data allowance.

The key thing to remember is, iTunes does not have the rights to have a movie or TV show on the cloud forever. This means that in as little as two or three years, your digital copy of The Avengers that you paid $20 for, may just up and disappear from your library entirely. Sure, you can maybe still watch it if the downloaded file is still on your hard drive, but good luck trying to access it remotely using the cloud. Why? Because if digital really does take off, you can bet that studios are going to clamber for a bigger piece of the pie. Physical media is stable because distributors charge a flat fee for a shipment of discs, but what if digital copies suddenly jumped up in popularity and iTunes is getting more benefits than the distributors? Said distributors can try to re-negotiate a royalty fee, and if neither iTunes nor the distributor is happy, then The Avengers is gone from the cloud. Sucks to be a consumer who bought a digital copy for its supposed benefits, huh?

The reason why Hollywood is pushing for digital delivery and digital copies is very simple: they have the control. Although some Blu-rays have BD-Live capability and the Internet can be accessed while browsing the disc, the studio does not have the power to remotely “lock” the disc or demand you pay for it again in order to continue using it. You own the disc, and you own the content. If studios tried locking discs, people could just disconnect their internet and happily continue watching their discs without the player trying to call home. Hell, some people do not have internet-capable Blu-ray players, leaving a whopping margin of people who simply cannot be touched.

Digital copies, on the other hand, are all about internet access. You download iTunes digital copies that are registered to your online account, and your devices that play your iTunes digital copies are often connected to the Internet. If the studios want, they can lock all iTunes digital copies and force you to pay to keep watching them for another few years. They can keep doing this, over and over again, forcing you to keep paying more money in order to keep enjoying the movies you want to enjoy. What if they start charging you every time you want to watch a movie? It’s only speculation at this point, but they can if they want to.

Yeah, people are going to bemoan that it wouldn’t be fair if this sinister stuff did go down, but do you really think the big companies actually give a fuck? They got your money. That’s what matters. And if they manage to abolish piracy, we have no choice.

So tell me again: Why should I pay $20 per movie on iTunes when I can pick it up on Blu-ray from the local mall for $10, which comes with pre-loaded content on a disc, special features, superior video and audio, added security, and, oftentimes, a fucking free digital copy. Hell, I have sold Ultraviolet codes online if I have no use for them, and I basically give them away. I would not pay more than $2 or $3 for an iTunes movie if it was more than a few years old, and I certainly would not pay more than $10 on iTunes for a new release. No way in hell. It’s why I’ve never bought a film on iTunes, and do not plan to do it until pricing is more reasonable.

Oh yeah, and what’s the logic in making Australians pay more for iTunes in response to Netflix? You’re ripping off the poor oblivious consumers who don’t pirate or use Netflix in the first place, and you’re making Netflix nuts more likely to stick with their Netflix and just pirate what they can’t watch on the service. Raising prices is not a good idea and will not end well.

You got all that? Good. Most of the above covers my thoughts on digital, but we’ll cover off a few extras points in the case of The Simpsons no longer being distributed via physical media. Now look, I do not watch The Simpsons anymore. I have not watched a new episode for about ten years. It was once a great show and it was a HUGE part of my childhood, and I still fucking love it for what it is, but the new stuff is not up to scratch, and all the classic stuff I’ve already watched to death. I’ve never purchased a season of the show on DVD or Blu-ray, and I don’t care that it’s not hitting physical media anymore because it doesn’t affect me. But it still matters, because you know what? There are dedicated fans out there who will never be able to finish their physical media collection of The Simpsons because of Fox. Now our only hope is that an independent distributor picks up the rights and releases all future seasons on BD and DVD, though would Fox ever let happen? And if so, would it be a profitable deal for the independent distributor?

And you know what else? This Simpsons thing might set a dangerous precedent that leads to the all-digital revolution I was talking about earlier, and it’s one of the things I most fear as a collector of physical media. If Fox suddenly makes an absolute killing off iTunes sales of future seasons, without the hassle of producing physical discs or dealing with brick and mortar stores, what’s stopping studios from gradually cutting out physical media and releasing their latest titles exclusively on iTunes? The Interview already showed that we are getting closer to cutting out cinemas altogether, what with its limited cinema release at the same time as its digital on-demand release, so the whole revolution is coming. But it’s just not quite there yet. You still have the Average Joes who don’t use computers or the Internet, or smartphones for that matter (more common than you would think), who still buy tickets at the cinema and movies on disc when they land. But with this current generation being weaned on the digital pleasures, who knows what’ll happen when the more old-fashioned generations are gone?

Digital copies are the studios’ way of combatting piracy and torrents, but they should in no way replace physical media. Shy of hooking your laptop up to a TV, it’s hard to watch an iTunes digital copy on your TV – which is the way you should watch a fucking movie in the first place! Apple TV is your only option, but seriously, I subscribe to Netflix and Stan, and have multiple Blu-ray players and PlayStations, and the Chromecast dongle for my TV. Fuck getting another additional gadget. Just fuck it! Give me a PS4 app, or get the fuck out!

Of course, some people may like the idea of an all-digital system because of convenience. After all, there are some who live off Netflix for their motion picture and television consumption. But here’s the issue: 90% of my movie viewing is passive. I actively watch movies only a handful of times per week, but on a typical day, I’ll passively watch up to four or five movies, just to have them as background noise while I surf the Net, indulge in social networking, or write. Hell, I have a movie on the TV as I write this. Why keep chewing up my internet allowance when I can watch a movie on a disc as many times as I want and not affect my Net at all? And don’t just jump in and say “Get unlimited downloads” because it’s not a viable option for every consumer. Plus, what if I wanna watch a movie and my Internet is down for a few hours?

Keep physical media alive, for Christ’s sake.

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