End of An Era

Tom Butts
Editor-In-Chief tbutts@nbmedia.com

When I moved to the Northern Virginia area 20 years ago, I discovered a small shop called the “Video Vault.” Nestled among the tony townhouses of Old Town, Alexandria, the Vault was a film buffs’ paradise—a three-story home converted into a video rental store with small rooms stuffed with everything from current releases to the cultest of cult classics. Variety and diversity was the name of the game at the Video Vault and I would spend hours perusing the racks for just the right hard-to- find movie or TV show.

About 10 years ago, after leaving the area, I returned to the store to find it had closed down—who knows why. Maybe it was the high rent, maybe the owners decided to leave the area (the store actually took its rental business online). But it also coincided with the beginning of the end of what had been predicted for years—the demise of the neighborhood video rental store.

I thought about the Video Vault the other day after hearing that Blockbuster was closing its approximately 300 remaining U.S.-based retail stores, as well as its distribution centers, and shuttering its DVD-by-mail service. The company, which at its peak in 2004, had more than 9,000 stores and 60,000 employees, was a very public victim of advancing compression and broadband technologies, as well as the good ‘ole U.S. Postal Service. Blockbuster, and its rival service Hollywood Video, had a tough time fighting off various competitors, whether it was Netflix, which exploded onto the scene in the early part of the last decade with its DVD-by-mail rental service; Redbox, whose kiosks are ever-present in just about every grocery store in the country, or video-on-demand through pay-TV, as well as, you guessed it, Netflix and Redbox streaming services. By the time Blockbuster launched its own DVD-by-mail rental service, it was too late.

For those of us who came of age when the VCR became almost as important as the living room TV set, video rental stores were a neighborhood staple and, for many, a favorite gathering spot for film buffs. Even Blockbuster had a decent variety of titles that satisfied my thirst for discovering a hidden gem. I consider myself a fairly “early adopter,” and welcomed Netflix’s fledgling streaming service with an open wallet when it entered the scene five to six years ago. I found myself visiting my local rental store less and less frequently.

But lest one get too wistful about the demise of such enterprises, there were a lot of negatives with the video rental experience, from late fees to surly clerks. And for the environmentally conscious among us, streaming is a lot more “green” than using physical media. Like so many technology transitions today, my initial response to Blockbuster’s announcement was a brief wave of nostalgia, followed by a realization that overall, the negatives outweighed the positives, resulting in a shoulder shrug of resignation. Its time has come and gone, but I won’t miss it.

Tom has covered the broadcast technology market for the past 25 years, including three years handling member communications for the National Association of Broadcasters followed by a year as editor of Video Technology News and DTV Business executive newsletters for Phillips Publishing. In 1999 he launched digitalbroadcasting.com for internet B2B portal Verticalnet. He is also a charter member of the CTA's Academy of Digital TV Pioneers. Since 2001, he has been editor-in-chief of TV Tech (www.tvtech.com), the leading source of news and information on broadcast and related media technology and is a frequent contributor and moderator to the brand’s Tech Leadership events.