What’s the future of DVDs and Blu-rays?

Blu-ray disc covers

Introduced commercially to North America in 1997, the DVD soon displaced VHS as the dominant home video format. DVD sales peaked in 2005, and have declined ever since. Similarly, Blu-ray discs were introduced in 2006; Blu-ray sales peaked in 2013, and have faced a similar decline. Blu-ray sales never eclipsed those of DVD sales, despite initial hopes.

In January 2021, media analysis group DEG released a report on US home video spending. The basic results (note I’ve rounded the numbers):

  • Streaming video: $21.2 billion (up 37% from $15.5 billion in 2019)
  • Digital video sales: $3 billion (up 16% from $2.6 billion in 2019)
  • Digital video rentals: $2.3 billion (up 18% from $2 billion in 2019)
  • Physical media sales: $2.5 billion (down 26% from $3.3 billion in 2019)
  • Physical video rentals: $1 billion (down 27% from $1.4 billion in 2019)
  • Total: $30 billion (up 21% from 2019 overall)

Note the major milestone: for the first time, digital video sales (i.e. buying movies and TV shows from iTunes, Google Play, or Amazon Video) eclipsed physical media sales (DVDs and Blu-rays). Physical media revenue overall made up about 12% of total home video revenue for the year.

While the pandemic certainly had an impact, it likely just helped accelerate ongoing trends. Looking at DEG’s report on 2019 home video revenue, released a few months before the pandemic fully hit, supports this.

Why are DVDs and Blu-rays’ popularity declining?

Blu-Ray player

“Blu-ray Player” by Diego Correa is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Flickr / cropped from original)

Streaming services

The main reason for the decline in popularity of DVDs and Blu-rays is streaming services. Over the 2010s, Netflix and other services rapidly rose in popularity; in 2020, streaming services made up 71% of all home video revenue. All non-physical media added together made up a whopping 88% of home video revenue.

Contrast that to 2013 (Blu-ray’s sales peak), which saw home video revenue at $18.2 billion. Of that, physical sales earned $7.8 billion, or 43% of all home video revenue. Including rentals, physical media made up 65% of all home video revenue in 2013. Only a fourth of physical rental revenue was from old-school video rental stores; the majority was DVD-by-mail rentals (like Netflix’s DVD service) or kiosks (like Redbox). Maybe why Blockbuster Video filed for bankruptcy at the end of 2013.

Streaming services are also why Blu-ray discs never fully replaced DVDs. The other main reason is that Blu-ray discs cost more than DVDs… for no legitimate reason other than a cash grab at this point, with programming in HD (and HDTVs) the norm.

Digital video purchases

Stand-alone digital video sales have recently increased. For years, stand-alone digital videos hadn’t caught on like their MP3 counterparts. Granted, they do have their downsides, as I wrote in a previous post; the main concerns being digital rights management (DRM) and proprietary formats tying them to the store they’re bought from (unlike DVDs). However, the fact that digital videos now outsell long standing formats like DVDs and Blu-rays suggests things are changing.

One factor is broader cross-platform digital video support via Movies Anywhere, which makes buying digital movies more appealing. Customers also don’t have to worry about choosing the “wrong” store or losing their videos if the store goes under.

Movies Anywhere isn’t perfect; Paramount and Lionsgate are two major studios that don’t participate. Movies Anywhere, as its name indicates, also doesn’t carry TV shows. However, aside from ripping one’s own DVDs/Blu-ray discs, it’s probably the best we’ll get as long as Hollywood insists on DRM in videos (unlike the RIAA finally allowing DRM-free MP3s).

The future of DVDs and Blu-rays (and home video)

Blu-ray display at Walmart

“Blu-ray Disc” by KKG Marketing is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Flickr / cropped from original)

As for DVDs and Blu-rays’ future, looking at the fate of their audio cousin, the CD, might give some ideas. DVD and Blu-ray sales are currently at about the same percentage of home video revenue that CDs were for audio revenue in 2017. Since then, CD sales continued to plummet; as of 2020, they made up only 4% of music industry revenue, their lowest since 1986. (They’re now outsold by vinyl records.) Best Buy stopped selling CDs in 2018.

My guess is that DVDs and Blu-rays, like CDs, won’t completely go away; video game consoles still use them, though even those are increasingly switching to digital. However, I expect they’ll be relegated to niche uses, specifically:

  • Those that don’t use streaming services.
  • Those that don’t use the internet or have sufficiently fast internet speeds.
  • Those concerned about media DRM and/or ownership.
  • Those who rip DVDs to digital files.
  • Home theater enthusiasts.
  • Movies and TV shows not available on digital stores or streaming services.
  • Movie buffs.
  • Fans of a particular franchise, movie, or TV show that want something physical/collectible.
  • As a cheap purchase, such as the discount DVD bins at Target, or Black Friday sales.

Otherwise, the future for home video seems to be streaming services and even digital purchases. My guess is by the end of the decade (if not sooner), Best Buy and Target will either stop carrying DVDs/Blu-rays altogether or reduce carrying them to only specific films.

As for nostalgia, from the looks of things, there’s more nostalgia for the video store rental experience than the DVD format itself. Documentaries, movies, comedies, etc. have been made about video rental stores. From the low level of nostalgia for VHS as a format (comparisons to Beta and “Simpsons” jokes aside), DVDs don’t seem like they’ll fare much better.

Photo by Sean MacEntee (Flickr / CC BY)

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