Toons of the 2000s: DVD and Digital Distribution – Part 2
By 2007, DVD had reached saturation – nearly every major release had come out on the format, and nearly every American home owned a player. Not surprisingly, the market for discs had slowed – software sales plateaued and then began to drop. Compounding this was the financial market collapse of 2008. When money becomes tight and expenses have to be cut, that season set of C.O.P.S. doesn’t look as appealing.
This was bad news for the major studios, which had put much of their livelihood on the backs of disc sales. Less money coming in invariably led to less money available to spend on releases. Warner is emblematic of this trend, with many of its lavish collector sets trimmed from 4 disc releases to 2 or even single disc releases. Best Buy and other big box chains cut their selling space for DVDs accordingly – it’s harder to find more niche material these days. Thus, the studios began to look for the next best thing.
There’s only one significant problem: it’s not clear what that next best thing is.
DVD’s anointed successor, Blu-ray Disc, has been here for a few years. After a rocky introduction, the format has picked up steam. Its future, however, remains uncertain. Animation has proven to be a minor factor to this point; most releases are of recent television series or features.
While the studios are pushing Blu-Ray hard, most everyone believes some kind of Internet delivery will become standard. Internet delivery is already here, but the form it will eventually take is up for debate. Numerous online download stores such as iTunes are around. Sites such as Hulu and YouTube offer free streaming of many popular shows. Netflix is aggressively pushing its new streaming service. There are many options but no clear-cut leader among them.
The studios would tell you the future is Blu. Featuring roughly five to ten times the storage space of DVD, the new format boasts true high definition and uncompressed 7.1 digital sound. Bonus features have expanded to include Internet connectivity. While it sounds like the perfect successor, sales have been slower than expected.
Part of this could be blamed on a problem DVD never had – a bitter and intense format war between Blu-Ray and rival HD-DVD. While there were fierce supporters of both sides, most consumers elected to sit out the war and wait for the victor – which eventually proved to be Blu.
However, the chief problem is that Blu-Ray is an evolutionary, not a revolutionary, leap. There was an immeasurable difference in quality between VHS and DVD. It was impossible to go back to tape after adopting the new format for the first time. By contrast, the differences between DVD and Blu are far subtler, amounting to noticeably – but not incredibly – sharper picture and visuals. It’s better than DVD, but does not make the older format seem lesser in comparison. Many DVDs still look good on high definition sets. Moreover, the full benefit of Blu-Ray can only be seen in HD; many homes have not made the leap yet.
To date, Blu-Ray has not seen the animation explosion present on DVD. Newer television productions and animated features are being released on the new format; not so much older material. A majority of older TV releases were produced and mastered in an SD format and are already being presented in best possible quality on DVD. Releasing these shows in full high definition on Blu-Ray would require a full restoration of the original film elements. These elements aren’t always available and if they are, the cost would be prohibitively expensive.
Moreover, consumers are showing resistance to repurchasing the same titles they just spent money to purchase on DVD. Blu-Ray may have a bright future, but that future is going to consist of newer releases for the most part. Many archive shows are bypassing the new disc format for the Internet.
YouTube and , uh… “legal” files
The first users to understand and use an emerging technology invariably tend to be the pirates. This is not to glorify or condone the practice, but merely illustrate the traditional sluggishness of studios to respond to new avenues of product. Video rips of DVDs or even original VHS recordings were around long before iTunes.
When YouTube opened and subsequently exploded, much of its growth was due to – you guessed it – illegally obtained content. The lawyers have done their best to contain it, but the practice is akin to a Hydra – if one limb is struck down, two or more grow in its place.
That said, amongst the inevitable illegal uploads of recent or popular cartoons lie hidden gems. These are cartoons that are tied up in legal limbo or lie in the depths of the vaults. It’s likely Warner isn’t aware of the existence of a show called Sky Commandos in its vault, nor does Disney realize it owns something called Bots Master, but clips from both are on YouTube. They’re likely not getting any sort of official release, but it’s good to know they’re out there. Just so people who remember seeing the show don’t go crazy trying to figure out its name.
iTunes and Download Stores
After Apple revolutionized the music industry, it was only natural that someone would try the same with TV shows and feature films. A number of stores have attempted to create an iTunes for visual media, but it is the actual iTunes that has the largest amount of visual content. Other online stores include Microsoft’s Zune Marketplace and Amazon’s Unbox.
Download store releases tend to mirror recent releases on DVD. Warner has been particularly thorough about this – most of its more high profile animation releases are available on iTunes, Xbox, and PlayStation Store. Most of the other major studios have similar release policies. Some are even bundling digital releases with DVD releases – i.e. the much-heralded Digital Copy.
Some programs have skipped DVD altogether, heading directly to the digital stores. One interesting example is available on Xbox 360, where Warner has made available Hanna-Barbera’s Pac-Man series for download. Now, keep in mind that Pac-Man has not merited a DVD release. It has not been seen on television in decades. But there it is, available on Xbox, presumably due to the video game connection.
Download stores are, well, stores – you pay to own them. Prices usually tend to start in the $2 range for TV shows; most movies cost $10-$20 to buy. Shows can be watched offline and in many cases transferred to portable media; iTunes releases are custom made for iPod. Problem is, these releases are encumbered with Digital Rights Management. An iTunes purchase can only be seen on a PC or other Apple device. Unless you own an Apple TV, it’s hard to watch it on a television.
YouTube begat other, more official streaming sites. However, the most prominent free streaming site is Hulu. Hulu was formed as a response to YouTube; NBC and News Corporation saw the torrents of copyrighted material on YouTube and decided it wanted to make money off of it. Hulu has subsequently grown into one of the more prominent streaming video sites on the Internet.
It’s also somewhat light on animation content, though there are highlights. NBC has contributed the entire run of ExoSquad, Fox is placing Family Guy and Simpsons, and Classic Media is putting some obscure animation muscle into the site. However, aside from those Fox show, there is no “big name” animated content. That should change fairly soon – Disney bought into the site last year.
Of course, Hulu is not the only streaming site; it’s merely the largest. There are other, smaller sites that have more favorable animation selections. Warner Bros. has revived Kids WB as a destination for its vast animation archive. Sony streams its material on something called Crackle. And Cookie Jar seems determined to milk every last show from its DiC and in-house archives on the new jaroo.com. It’s possible to find legal streaming cartoons from the big studios fairly easily.
Netflix made its fortune through mail-order DVD rentals. It overtook the mighty Blockbuster and became the #1 video rental service. It’s a credit to founder Reed Hastings that they haven’t stopped there. Instead, the company has moved heavily into online streaming, finally living up to its title. Online streaming is included with all of its DVD rental plans – the service works similarly to Hulu save for the subscription part.
The Netflix selection is admittedly patchy. Most of the big titles are snapped up by other streaming providers or premium cable services, making the animation selection fairly threadbare. There are highlights, mostly through Nickelodeon, which is offering its more recent Nicktoons on the service.
Netflix’s offering is technically competent and promising. For now, it’s the idea – rather than the execution – that’s garnering all the excitement.
The Last 15 Feet
There’s one problem with Internet streaming – it usually requires a computer to enjoy. Most people, however, feel more comfortable sitting on a couch and looking at a larger screen for their entertainment. That’s understandable. Reed Hastings has described the biggest obstacle for Internet distribution as “the last 15 feet” between the computer and the television.
Efforts are being made to bridge that gap. Netflix has been at the forefront – it’s signed deals with a varied range of companies to get its service on their devices. Netflix service is now available through set top boxes, Blu-ray players, and video game consoles.
And it’s that last part that may prove to be the most lucrative market. Video game consoles attract the young male demographic that tends to embrace computers and other assorted arrays of electronic gadgetry. The latest generation of consoles aim to be more than a video game player but a media hub. Xbox and PlayStation both have sizable download stores – and Netflix has signed streaming deals with both makers. Sony has also pushed PS3 as the Trojan horse for Blu-Ray, just as the PS2 helped push DVD to the masses. When Internet delivery becomes standard, the video game consoles will play a role.