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‘People still watch DVDs?!’: Why the TV box set is still going strong

Like books and vinyl records, DVD box sets are holding firm against the streaming tide, writes Aaron Yap.

It used to be bloody hard to watch TV, didn’t it? These days it’s as easy as turning on the tap. Just sacrifice a smashed avo toast a month, and you can afford to zone out to hours of quality butt-numbing television at your fingertips. But it wasn’t too long ago that conditions were less than optimal. Watching Freeview meant you had to suffer through 15 minutes of ad breaks an hour, cutting into precious drama time. If you went the pay TV route, you’re forking out for content at wallet-squeezing premium prices, completely nonsensical when you realise there were only two or three shows you were truly excited about watching.

Then there was the option of renting TV on DVD (or VHS, if you want to travel further back) from your neighbourhood video store. Here was a process that’s seemingly designed to maximise discomfort. To get that disc, you had to emerge from the safety and comfort of your cave, maybe get gas, then possibly contend with bad traffic and bad weather. Then once you’re in the store, there’s a high chance you’ll have to interact with other human beings, like the soul-dead clerk on minimum wage. All this, and there’s no guarantee that the episode four-to-six disc you’re after will be in stock for you to take home. The struggle was definitely real.

Nevertheless, the box set will always have a place in my life. It was a pivotal facilitator of my gateway into the Golden Age of Television. My initial viewings of groundbreaking shows like 24, The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Six Feet Under and Breaking Bad were all done via DVD. I bought them. I rented them. And I occasionally still do. It begs the question: where does the TV box set sit in this era where online streaming, with its unbeatable formula of convenience and low price point, has revolutionised the delivery and consumption of television? Why would anyone even want torture themselves by watching TV disc by disc?

Let’s first acknowledge its existence. For the “people still watch DVD??!” tech snobs, and anyone who hasn’t set foot inside a Video Ezy or JB Hi Fi since streaming became their God of TV: yes, packaged media is still very much around. It’s a sunset industry, no doubt. Struggling, but ticking away. Home Media Magazine reported that globally, DVD and Blu-ray disc sales topped US$18 billion last year. A certain streaming giant hellbent on world domination hasn’t shuttered its DVD-by-mail service yet. At the start of the year, they can boast a 50% operating profit and service a subscriber base nearly the size of New Zealand’s population. The numbers suggest that physical media continues to stuff ample cash into the pockets of content producers and distributors.

In New Zealand, TV box sets are thriving in niche markets. Shirlina Deans, who buys DVD/Blu-ray and Music products for Mighty Ape, says the sales of the format “are going really well”. She considers them “a growth category” for the Kiwi-owned-and-operated online store. “A lot of our customers are collectors and are truly passionate about their favourite films and TV shows. They want to own them on disc, display them on the shelf and add them to their collection. It almost becomes part of your identity as a collector, and allows you to lend them out to friends and family.”

It’s this warm sense of ownership and connection that’s missing from online streaming models. We gain convenience but lose the human and tactile element that’s able to shape us. We can connect deeper with the things we love if we have them in our hands, within our reach. It’s not unlike having a library of books, or a large vinyl collection. They can trigger memories, or define a specific moment in our lives. Like that time you got high to Freaks and Geeks. Call me a weirdo but opening an artfully packaged box set and feeding a disc into your Blu-ray player can be as satisfying and zen-like as pulling a record from its sleeve and cueing it up on a turntable.

Owning a personal copy of your favourite TV show also means your experience is no longer dictated by the rights holders and powers-that-be. You’ve already paid for the right to proudly display it on your shelf and do whatever you want with it – forever. You won’t wake up the next day to find that season five of Homeland has disappeared from your streaming service due to the expiration of rights. It’s the difference between seeing a piece of art in a museum and having that actual art in your living room.

But didn’t the introduction of online streaming into the marketplace cause a dent in sales? “For Mighty Ape it hasn’t affected us as much as other retailers,” Shirlina says. “Box sets offer more than just your standard DVD or Blu-ray. It’s usually packed with special features you can’t find anywhere else, freebies or limited edition cases or artwork.” She cites cult shows like Twin Peaks and Game of Thrones, and the Anime genre being top sellers in the field. The Gold Box Edition of Twin Peaks, which sold out on release, contains a plethora of extra, enticing material, including a feature-length documentary – catnip for obsessive fans who want more than just a stream of the show.

Madman Entertainment, who specialise in anime, festival movies, world cinema and documentaries, have found that their eclectic back catalogue of television is servicing a sizeable market. Their best-selling TV show of all time? “Midsomer Murders, easily,” says Andrew Cozens, Madman’s Marketing and Sales executive in New Zealand. “The fact that this long-running British crime drama is unavailable to stream here is a factor, but it’s also a show that appeals to an older generation who might not be so web-savvy or simply prefer going into a store to buy their shows.” Their recent re-release of The Avengers, a massive “Ultimate Collection” of 40 discs, has performed strongly, as well as “anything crime/murder/mystery”, from Scandi-noirs like The Killing and The Bridge to local productions like The Brokenwood Mysteries and Westside.

Rather than the direct competition of content from the streamers, Cozens says navigating the double-standards in classifying content has proved more of a challenge. One of Madman’s upcoming DVD releases, season two of the Pablo Escobar drug trafficking series Narcos, has already been available for New Zealanders to stream for nearly a year. However, because the streaming provider hasn’t classified the show through the Office of Film and Literature Classification, Madman will need to shell out over $3000 in classification fees for the physical release. Talk to any home video distributor, and you’ll hear that this is a common recurring headache. “It’s a real pain in the ass,” says Cozens. “These exorbitant costs are the result of a system that hasn’t caught up with the times. We’ve had to pull so many shows from release because it just wasn’t worth it.” Want to walk into the Warehouse and pick up a copy of Louie? Forget it.

Imagining a world where the TV experience is limited to a robotic procession of links and clicks is a grim thought. But as long as fans and collectors roam this Earth, it’s unlikely that TV box sets will vanish anytime soon. Sometimes you just can’t do right by your TV romance while it’s buried deep in code, somewhere in the cold, vast expanse of the cloud.


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