If there’s one thing consistent about physical media, it’s change. CD replaced the audio cassette, and DVD replaced VHS. However, the successor to DVD, Blu-ray, has not had as successful a victory story as its predecessor. But why? Technologically speaking, the format is better than DVD in every way: the picture is clearer, the color is more vibrant, and the sound is unmatched. And yet, the DVD is still sold and purchased as regularly as ever. I’m even guilty of it myself—I’ve bought a DVD in the past month! I’ve also discovered over the past year that many of my friends don’t even own a Blu-ray player! For as long as it’s been true, I’ve always wondered why Blu-ray has never reigned supreme. However, after having considered it for some time now, I believe that the stalemate can be attributed to three key factors: marketing, format comparatives, and timing.
DVD killed VHS swiftly and easily. Why hasn't Blu-ray done the same?
The first big reason Blu-ray never saw victory is because it was marketed poorly. First of all, the industry did not force DVD out the same way they forced out VHS, and there’s one major culprit: the “Blu-ray Combo Pack.” During the transitional years from DVD to VHS, consumers had to make a choice: they had to choose either DVD or VHS—there was no convenient way to buy both. This makes for true competition, where the consumer chooses one product over the other. There is a clear winner and a clear loser. A present-day comparison would be smartphones: the consumer is most likely going to buy only one, so they must make a choice, and whomever they don’t choose loses. With Blu-ray, however, this true competition was absent, and here’s why. When DVD surfaced, consumers probably had only one or at most two VCR’s in their homes. Therefore, when it was time to upgrade to DVD, it was simple for them: they could buy a single DVD player to replace their VCR. (If they were squeamish still, they could purchase an all-in-one VCR + DVD player.) However, by the time Blu-ray came along, consumers (including my family) might have had at least two DVD players in their homes. Therefore, upgrading to Blu-ray meant having to replace every single one of those players with one that could play the new format. (Many were no doubt confused and therefore less willing when they considered how Blu-ray was an optical disc just like DVD, which I'll address further later on.) Scared that consumers wouldn’t want to make this tedious upgrade, manufacturers often sold Blu-rays in “Combo Packs,” which would include the Blu-ray, a DVD, and a digital copy redeemable via iTunes, Ultraviolet, etc. The DVD was included so that consumers could “watch the movie anywhere” (an opportunity negated by the digital copy, albeit not until streaming set-top boxes took over in a few years). By not forcing consumers to switch to Blu-ray as they had with DVD, manufacturers doomed the format from the very start. These “Combo Packs” have since been repurposed into a means to sell the movie at a higher price: while retailers frequently still offer a DVD-only option, the “Combo Pack” is just as often the only way to purchase the Blu-ray, forcing consumers to pay a higher price, thus further repelling them from the format. Plus, unlike VHS and DVD, the Blu-ray format is owned by Sony. This means that whenever a manufacturer wants to publish a Blu-ray, they have to pay Sony a licensing fee.
Blu-ray (notice the Sony-enforced ™ in the image) combo packs, like this one of Disney's Cinderella, were not helpful in forcing out DVD.
But even if it weren’t for the damning “Blu-ray Combo Pack,” manufacturers still would have experienced serious difficulty in moving the format because of format comparatives. When a new media format comes along to replace an existing one, consumers will compare it with the existing one based on three factors: physicality, experience, and quality. As for physicality, DVD had an easy leg up on VHS: the optical discs in slim cases were an obvious improvement over the clunky, oversized cassette tapes. In the case of Blu-ray, though, the form factor was exactly the same: these optical discs were just like DVD. This, as I mentioned before, was no doubt confusing for some consumers—for a format so physically similar to DVD, why should it warrant such a pervasive upgrade? Blu-ray tried to improve upon the form factor by packaging the discs in slimmer cases, but these offered little advantage to an otherwise identical physical form. The same marginal benefit was true for the overall experience, too. In the case of DVD vs. VHS, there was no comparison: not only did DVD eradicate the annoying rewind process required by VHS (which was easily the worst thing about the format), but the menu, chapter skipping, and extensive audio-visual controls made for an irresistible advancement. Once again, though, Blu-ray did not offer such lightyears’ worth of upgrades. The only advantage Blu-ray offered in the way of menus was the pop-up menu feature, which kept the user from having to leave the feature presentation in order to visit the menu. However, even this marketable feature turned out not to be as much of a convenience as it seemed it would. For one, it’s only useful for changing A-V settings (like toggling commentary tracks or changing the audio profile via the Setup submenu) or for skipping around to different parts of the film—for any other menu options such as accessing bonus material, there is nothing lost in returning to the main menu. Plus, the invasive menu forces the user to either miss part of the movie while they’re navigating or pause it, thus recreating the experience of returning to the main menu. Many of the features that migrated from DVD to Blu-ray actually got worse. For example, the menus themselves pale in comparison to their DVD forefathers. James Rolfe of Cinemassacre says in his anti-Blu-ray apologetics video,
“Remember when DVD’s had awesome menus? The Wayne’s World menu is like a TV guide—you can even click on stuff that has nothing to do with the movie. Some DVD’s like House of a Thousand Corpses’ would have a character from the movie talking to you. I’ll always remember in Spinal Tap’s when the band complains that the logo is too small. But I haven’t seen that many great menus on Blu-ray, hardly any, in fact. I mean, it’s really bad when you’re able to compare the same movie, and the DVD menu shows a thousand times more effort. The Blu-ray’s are always either just a ten-second loop of the movie, or it’s the same stock menu. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve popped in a Blu-ray and seen that same stock menu that anyone with a computer could make.”
Another feature about which Rolfe complains is the format’s “bookmark” feature. I’m willing to bet that most users don’t even know that this feature exists, but as Rolfe explains, it is a means of telling the player where to resume the video should the user take a viewing hiatus (just like how a physical bookmark communicates the same to a reader with book). Continuation is one of the few features that actually peaked with VHS: since the tape-based format relied on the physical movement of the tape itself, if the user were to stop the tape, the player would start it back up wherever the tape was physically resting, thus allowing seamless continuation even from player to player. DVD managed this just fine with the STOP function, where the player would simply hold the timecode in its RAM and then continue the video from there upon resumption. It didn’t work player-to-player, but the new Scene Selection menus managed the difference. Blu-rays, however, require the viewer to, before they stop the disc, leave a bookmark with one of the remote’s color buttons. Since there are four colors (and therefore four potential bookmarks), this does make for a new opportunity of leaving multiple checkpoints, but it completely forgets the convenience of simply stopping the DVD or tape. I’ve never experienced this issue myself, as I tend to watch films in one sitting, but I imagine it can be immensely frustrating.
Warner uses the same generic menu design for all of its Blu-ray releases.
Lastly in the comparative arena, there is quality. Just like everything else, this was a night-and-day difference in the case of DVD vs. VHS. DVD’s crisp digital picture put VHS’s fuzzy analog look to shame. However, Blu-ray champions such as myself can tell you that quality, unlike the other comparisons, is the one category that makes Blu-ray the winner. While certain DVD’s definitely look great (the Star Wars 2004 Special Edition, for example, looks HD), nothing beats the look of a Blu-ray. The minimally compressed, crystal clear HD puts even HD streaming to shame. And, since sound is Sony’s specialty, I’ll be as bold as to say that Blu-ray’s audio quality tops every single other format, including CD and vinyl. So then, since this stark difference in quality is enough to win over cinephiles and tech fans like myself, why doesn’t it sell Blu-ray to the rest of the public? It’s because of something I like to call the MP3 factor. In the early days of the iPod, the difference in the sound quality between MP3 and CD was unquestionable—CD was clearly better. But since the experience of the iPod (including the increased portability and the convenience of buying individual tracks on iTunes) was so desirable, it nullified the difference in quality for consumers. The same is true in the case of DVD vs. Blu-ray: the difference in the A-V quality is not enough for consumers to care. In fact, the difference is even less noticeable for certain viewers because of their specific viewing setups and the ratio between screen size and viewing distance. When one goes to the movies (that is if one still goes to the movies), they will see a 4K (4096 x 2160) image on a screen that is (on average) about 64 feet across diagonally from a distance of 20-40 feet. In this setting, if the resolution were to be cut down to HD (1920 x 1080), viewers would notice the difference because of the sheer size of the screen. Now consider a home setup. I watch my media on a 50-inch screen from about 10 feet away. Therefore, I can only barely tell the difference between 4K (or technically UHD) and HD (the difference is that 4K is just easier on my eyes), but I can tell an extreme difference between HD and SD. However, if I were to have a 70–90-inch screen and watch from 6 feet away, the difference between HD and 4K would be just as stark. The same would be true if I went in the other direction: if I were to watch on a 30–40-inch screen and go back to watching from 10 feet away (which is the setup that most of my friends have), the difference between HD and SD would be minimized. Such a minuscule difference therefore makes the upgrade from DVD to Blu-ray seem unwarranted to most consumers.
Using the PS4 to play Blu-ray in this space would be pointless—that TV's too small for one to notice a difference.
The final nail in Blu-ray’s coffin has been timing. If a product is to succeed, it has to be in the right place at the right time. When it surfaced, the timing seemed right for Blu-ray to successfully take off: consumers were buying bigger digital screens. However, its ascension was skewed by the simultaneous rise of non-physical digital media and streaming. The DVD included in the aforementioned “Combo Pack” failed to force consumers to upgrade to Blu-ray, but if that weren’t enough, the digital copy showed them the more convenient alternative. Redeeming a movie online allows one to watch it between an array of different devices, including smartphones, laptops, tablets, game consoles, and of course TV’s, topping the convenience factor of both DVD and Blu-ray. The difference in quality between the digital copy and Blu-ray was even more minuscule than with DVD. While early “Combo-Pack” inclusions were SD, most of them are now HD, potentially hindered only by the streaming bitrate decided by the provider (e.g. Apple, Amazon, Ultraviolet). But of course, even with these trivial comparative factors, Blu-ray’s David has not stood a chance against the Goliath that is streaming services. This war has essentially been another repeat of CD vs. MP3: Blu-ray’s minuscule quality advantage (or lack thereof with the advent of UHD HDR streaming) and promise of everlasting ownership, for most consumers, is nothing compared to the overwhelmingly convenient ecosystem and software-as-a-service payment model offered by Netflix, Hulu, et. al.
But of course, Blu-ray is not dead yet. In fact, I even upgraded to the semi-successor 4K Blu-ray this year. The only question is, though, how much longer does the format have? Its death date is just as unpredictable as one’s own, but for as long as it’s here, I’ll be enjoying it, at least until a better format comes along. What are your thoughts? Do you love or hate Blu-ray? Let me know in the comments, and be sure to check back often for more fun articles here at NicholasCoker.com.