Monday, September 19, 2011

The Ethics of DVD Rentals: From Blockbuster to RedBox

At first glance, the ways people rent DVDs seem pretty neutral morally (that is, excluding the content of the DVDs: that’s a topic for another time). But these ways have changed a lot in the past decade or so, and anytime there is change in technology there will be winners, losers, and effects that have ethical aspects to them. This is certainly true in the DVD rental market, which has gone through at least two major transitions since about 2000.

DVDs themselves were the eventual death knell for the previous media-storage technology, the videotape cartridge. DVDs were introduced in the U. S. in 1997, the same year that a small company called Netflix was founded. Initially, DVDs were rented (or sold) through the already-established chains of video rental outlets, Blockbuster being the most prominent among many others.

From the consumer’s point of view, browsing at a video rental store was not unlike browsing at a bookstore, especially if the store was independently owned and carried a wider variety of goods than was strictly warranted by volume or profit. There is something about being physically present among a collection of physical objects that facilitates the spontaneous and serendipitous discovery, making one feel like a child exploring an unknown wood. When we moved to Austin for a year in 1999, our favorite independent video store was Vulcan Video, which was (and still is) just that kind of place where you can find the unexpected.

Then Netflix happened, Blockbuster failed to adapt, and the video-store market collapsed, aided by the Great Recession starting around 2008. As people increasingly turned to renting content either by mail or internet streaming, the overhead associated with running a brick-and-mortar store—space, utilities, and above all, salaries—overwhelmed the declining profits, and Blockbuster went bankrupt.

But an outfit named Redbox (initially funded by the fast-food chain McDonald’s, as it turns out) discovered there was still a niche for people who did not want the hassle and commitment of ordering videos in advance by mail, but who still wanted to go get a DVD on Friday night on the spur of the moment. The solution: vending machines.

The vending machine has a surprisingly long pedigree, the first one being invented around A. D. 30 by none other than Hero of Alexandria, who was one of the ancient Greek world’s leading inventors. His machine dispensed holy water in temples in response to the worshipper’s inserting a coin. The concept mostly went dormant for a couple of millennia until an enterprising English bookseller named Richard Carlisle devised a machine to sell books automatically in the late 1800s. From there the idea caught on, with food for the mouth taking precedence over food for the mind in the U. S.: gum, candy, cigarettes (remember cigarette vending machines?), and the ubiquitous soft-drink dispensers spread over the landscape.

So it only makes sense that somebody would try to rent DVDs with vending machines, aided by the ease of networked debit-card and credit-card systems. I suppose that is the way the company enforces late penalties and charges for unreturned media as well, although I have never personally rented a video through Redbox.

The other day, however, I was waiting for my wife outside a drugstore and watched several people rent videos from one of the units. One couple, a guy and his girlfriend, loudly discussed the merits of various DVDs while he was standing in front of the screen and she stood a few yards away at their car door. The screens, complete with little flexible cloth sunshades, aren’t large enough for more than one person to see at a time. Another pair, evidently a woman and her late-teenage daughter, must have flipped through the machine’s entire inventory before picking something. This particular machine has two screens, fortunately, but I can imagine that such dallying with others waiting in line could be discouraging for the impatient. Clearly the leisurely browsing in air-conditioned comfort that the vanished video store provided is a thing of the past. I forecast a big drop in Redbox sales once cold weather hits, too

The phrase “creative destruction” has been used to describe the way advances in technology render superfluous entire business segments, such as the video store. My sympathy is with the thousands of former Blockbuster employees who have now joined the ranks of the (at least temporarily) unemployed. If they were young (most of them were), they can adapt fairly quickly and find other work. They are among the losers in this process.

As for consumers, well, it’s certainly more convenient for me to just run over the couple of blocks to the drugstore and rent a video, instead of driving across town to the former Blockbuster. But I’m not sure I’d want to stand out in the sun (or the cold) and pick through stuff on a touchscreen while perhaps other patrons are standing behind me, figuratively breathing down my neck. I’ve found myself instead looking through the admittedly limited selection of DVDs and antique VHS tapes at the public library. The experience is closer to the video-store one, and somehow the taste expressed by the library’s selections is closer to mine than the kiss-kiss-bang-bang type of DVD featured by Redbox. (That was true of Blockbuster’s selection, too, and is just a function of market demographics in a college town).

Eventually, perhaps, internet downloading will be so cheap and fast that even the Redboxes will find themselves out-maneuvered. But that’s what’s so interesting about living in a free-market economy: nobody knows for sure what will happen next, even the people who are trying to make it happen.

Sources: A good mini-history of vending machines can be found at, which I consulted along with articles on Wikipedia about Hero of Alexandria, Redbox, and DVDs.

1 comment:

  1. No need to make a decision at the vending machine, the best way to use Redbox is to go online, find the movie you want, locate the closest machine and reserve it, and then go get it!