We Are Miserable, Slothful Creatures. Can Technology Save Us From Ourselves?

With all due respect to sloths (arboreal mammals that hang upside down from trees) we (humans) are total sloths (ie. reluctant to work or make an effort; lazy). To prove my point, your Honor, I submit Exhibit A, those red Netflix mail-in envelopes.

A question: When was the last time you mailed back a DVD in a red Netflix envelope? If you answered, “It's been so long, I can't rightly remember,” I thank you for proving my point.

Netflix debuted in 1998 as the world's first online DVD rental store. After some lean times (you will recall that in the early days, the DVD format was certainly not a sure thing) the company took flight. In 2005, the company was mailing 1 million discs every day and by 2007 had delivered its billionth DVD. But the writing was on the wall; as faster internet connections became available, Netflix smartly transitioned away from its core business of DVD and Blu-ray physical media and into video on demand via the internet. The red envelopes largely faded into obscurity.

It may surprise you to learn that DVD rental is still a part of the Netflix empire, albeit a shadow of its former self. Disc rental limps along with 3 million subscribers, compared to over 125 million streaming subscribers. In the first quarter of 2018, the disc division made $56 million in profit on $99 million in revenue, compared to $11.7 billion in overall annual revenue in 2017. Relatively, not a lot of money but I guess a buck is still a buck. Who still uses the red envelopes? I suspect it is people living where the U.S. Post is faster than the internet and frankly I am glad that Netflix still serves those people.

Now, here's the thing. A DVD or Blu-ray disc can provide first-rate video and surround-sound audio. Buffs also greatly appreciate the extras that are only available on disc. Yes, streaming can deliver a good-quality product, but I think physical media is still the gold standard for movie enjoyment. Netflix's disc rental provides still more advantages over streaming. First, the disc library is about 100,000 titles, versus typically about 5,600 for streaming. Second, disc rental is relatively cheap at $5 to $12 per month versus $8 to $14 a month for streaming.

Still, in spite of advantages in quality, depth of catalog, and price, disc rental is a dying business. But, but, but you protest, what about Redbox? With 42,000 kiosks in 34,000 locations, Redbox accounts for over 50% of all disc rentals in the U.S. As of 2013, Redbox rented 3 billion discs (movies and games). But annual rentals also peaked that same year, and have declined since then. Physical media rental, and ownership, does not have a bright future. The convenience of streaming is killing it.

Yes, we would rather watch whatever happens to appear on the onscreen menu, perhaps at a relatively low bit rate, because it is convenient. The reason, your Honor, is because we are miserable, lazy creatures. In the history of audio and video, convenience has always triumphed over quality. People would rather just turn on the TV, flick through some menus, and watch whatever, instead of dropping a red envelope in the mail or, previously, rewinding a video tape.

The good news is that technology will save us from ourselves. Just as faster internet connections allowed streaming to overtake disc rental, ever faster connections are allowing ever higher quality video and audio. Maybe we could wind up with both convenience and quality.

Hmm – a postscript: When everyday streaming quality equals the best that Blu-ray can provide, it will kill off Blu-ray (because of convenience). But without that benchmark to strive for, will streaming quality continue to improve or, having beat its physical competition, will streaming quality stop there? We are, after all, slothful creatures.

brenro's picture

We're still plenty slothful though.

trynberg's picture

Just put a red Netflix envelope in the mail today! Some of us didn't put together multi-thousand dollar systems to watch low bit-rate video with DD sound...streaming is fine for casual entertainment but I'm not wasting my limited movie watching time with less than BD video and audio quality.

trynberg's picture

(soon to be UHD quality)

KINGTED's picture

I usually put two discs in the mail a week. I still subscribe to DVD.netflix.com for the quality and the selection, as you mentioned but also for their ratings algorithm. A while ago Netflix's streaming service dropped their 5 star system (along with all of my saved rankings) for a thumbs up thumbs down system, but DVD.netflix.com still has the 5 star system which is super accurate for me with about 3000 movies rated. If anything I would want an expanded ranking system, I rate most movies between 2.5 and 4.5 on rotten tomatoes, but with a 5 point scale that means almost everything is a 3 or a 4.

I also subscribe to Netflix, Amazon (more for shipping), Hulu + HBO (temporarily), Cable, and Movie Pass. I have found my red envelope queue is finally shrinking because using Movie Pass I see new movies in the theater. Netflix's streaming has really decreased in the content available that isn’t a Netflix original, so I am debating dropping it for a while.

rjmedich's picture

I dropped a disc in the mail just this past week. While I am stunned by the picture quality of Netflix's 4K HDR fare, their movie catalogue doesn't come anywhere close to what they host in their Blu-ray collection. (And thankfully, there are at least a couple of 4K disc rental services out there.) Once streaming can get us disc quality—or even Netflix 4K quality—and a huge catalogue to match, I'll give up on discs.

drny's picture

I rented 3D Blurays and UHD Blurays from Store-3D blurayrentals until three months ago. As with most of S&V readers quality A&V is a non- negotiable.
Nonetheless, I got sick and tired of waiting for my disc selection to be available (or pay an additional premium for priority shipping).
My solution, simply buy more 4k UHD movies (must be reference quality levels or close to it).
Yes, I still rent Blurays (RedBox) and I subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime and Sling TV.
I did stop buying CD's about three years ago (When Hi-res audio downloads became more readily available, and when more affordable quality DACs also hit the market.
However, we are at least three years away from a similar situation taking place with 4k movies with HDR.

jcarys's picture

Everytime I watch a bad movie (or a bad transfer, usually DVD) from Netflix, I say to myself that I need to stop renting discs. But then something great shows up that pleasantly surprises me, and I keep it going. As you mentioned, it's only $6 a month, so it's just about the most economical option in my arsenal. I really should get rid of DirecTV before I touch the Netflix disc option.

dnoonie's picture

I watch a lot of BD DVDs from Netflix.

Once I complete the conversion to UHD I'll go with 3d rentals for UHDs. Redbox might be getting into the UHD business too.

By disk rental I watch TV shows, Movies and documentaries.

I also buy disks for TV shows, movies and docs.

I stream shows that I want to watch in near real time from VUDU.

Netflix streaming library is much too limited, I got a trial and found that there were very few things I wanted to watch and the TV shows I was really looking for wern't available.

Amazon seems like it has a little better library but then again what I wanted to watch I had to pay for.

Streaming quality has improved a lot but is still not as good as a BD disk, particularly the audio.