Last week, Samsung revealed in a statement to CNET it would cease production of Blu-ray players for the US market by the end of 2019. Despite 2018 seeing record spending on home entertainment content, sales of physical media such as DVD and Blu-ray have been dramatically declining over the past few years. Is this the beginning of the end for physical media?
"Samsung will no longer introduce new Blu-ray or 4K Blu-ray player models in the US market," was the short and succinct statement from a Samsung spokesperson to CNET last week.
Samsung is by no means the biggest player in the US Blu-ray player market. Panasonic and Sony still rule that territory, with both companies continuing to develop and manufacture high-end disc players. However, Samsung's decision to pull out of the Blu-ray player market certainly feels like a sign of an oncoming shift. A shift that is profoundly reflected in the significant sales decline of physical media over the past few years.
"The Christmas from hell"
Retailers in the United Kingdom were hit hard late last year with reports claiming DVD and Blu-ray sales in the week leading up to Christmas were down by over 30 percent compared to the same time in 2017. Kim Bayley, from Entertainment Retailers Association called it the "Christmas from hell," but perhaps most striking was the fact that overall entertainment sales in the UK actually grew by nine percent over 2018.
Streaming services, video on demand and general digital media sales are booming worldwide. In the United States, subscription streaming revenue exploded in 2018 with 30 percent growth over past 12 months alone. While overall home entertainment revenue seems to be steadily growing, consumers are steadfastly moving away from spending their money on physical media.
For the second year running disc sales in the United States have dropped by 15 percent. Across 2018, DVD and Blu-ray sales accounted for just US$4 billion, and before you remark at how large a number that is, do note that across the same period subscription streaming generated $12.9 billion.
It is clear physical media is on the decline but what is not clear is where the bottom in this falling market is, as consumers rapidly shift to streaming and VOD models. Both the music and book industries seemed to have consolidated a form of physical media as audiences return to different forms of collectable media.
Over the last couple of years there has been a fascinating upswing in book sales as the e-book trend seems to have peaked and people returned to the pleasures of the printed page. The music industry has also battled with this shift, and while streaming services such as Spotify and iTunes still reign supreme, vinyl has become the collectable physical media of choice for music fans, with year on year sales repeatedly growing.
So what is the collectable physical medium for film and television that will dominate the future market? 4K Blu-ray? Laserdisc? VHS?
In many ways the decline of physical media is a boon for corporate interests. It disrupts our traditional conception of ownership, taking away the idea of buying a copy of a film that we can permanently hold and watch, and replacing it with a temporary access pass to an abstract digital collection. This loss of real objective ownership has surely pushed a sizable amount of consumers back into buying books and vinyl records. But a book doesn't need a special player to let you read it, and while a vinyl record needs a turntable, this kind of nostalgic technology has turned into quite the object of affection for many.
Does a DVD or Blu-ray player fill you with the same sense of nostalgic warmth? In 20 or 30 years will we lovingly pull out an old DVD from the ancient collection and slip it into a crusty, barely functioning player the same way we flick through a record collection and drop it onto a turntable?
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