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THE MORNING BUZZ: Do Studios Plan DVD Obsolescence?

6 Sep, 2002 By: Thomas K. Arnold

Built-in obsolescence is a hallmark of American industry. Technology exists to create lightbulbs that would last practically forever, but then the lightbulb industry wouldn't sell many lightbulbs — hence, the thin filament that burns out after a few months.

The same is true of car parts, refrigerators (the shelves on my Whirlpool have been glued and reglued myriad times, and the dang thing's only five years old), you name it.

In the pre-digital era, home entertainment had the perfect excuse for built-in obsolescence — moving parts and wear and tear. The mechanisms on audiocassettes and videocassettes have so many tiny parts, it's inevitable that something will go wrong — and even if it doesn't, the wear and tear to the tape eventually damages the magnetic field, meaning the sound or image start to disintegrate, say, after 10 or 15 years. The vinyl LP was even worse. There were no moving parts, but the sharp diamond needle tore the bejesus out of those poor vinyl grooves, and with each play it got worse. Diehard rock fans like myself frequently “wore out” albums that had to be replaced; I remember buying two copies, at the onset, of Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town back in the late 1970s because I knew what would happen.

DVDs and audio CDs don't wear out. It's been said they last about 300 years, although no one's been around long enough to find out. Now, I don't have exact replacement figures, but I believe a fair amount of income, in years past, came from people replacing worn-out software. With those five-inch optical discs, with no moving parts and nothing touching the surface except a beam of light, the record companies and studios stand to lose a small but nevertheless lucrative stream of incremental income.

If you look at what's happening in our industry, certain things start to make sense. Why are studios so against coating their DVDs with something to minimize damage from scratches? The technology exists — I remember the VSDA as far back as the middle 1990s lobbying for this, on behalf of rental dealers who were already dealing with scratched and otherwise field-damaged game discs, and who were fearful of the same thing happening once DVD really got going.

Well, DVD really has gotten going, and the rental dealers I've spoken with tend to dismiss field-damaged discs as a fact of life. Could it be that the studios simply don't want to coat their discs? You can't really blame their reasoning — they'd be spending more money and taking in less, since there would be fewer replacement sales.

I also find it interesting that the studios most concerned about driving down the price of DVDs use flimsy cardboard boxes rather than those nice, handsome, sturdy all-plastic “keepcases”. All right, so it's not the software, but collectors want things in mint condition, so if the box goes, they're likely going to buy a new one, especially if buying another copy will only set them back $10 or $12.

I'm not saying the studios are deliberately trying to thwart DVD's archival nature, or are consciously trying to make a product that somewhere down the road will break down, like a car, and need to be replaced.

It's just that built-in obsolescence is so ingrained in our culture that doing so would be second nature. They probably haven't given it much thought; it's just the way things are done.

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