Blockbuster Video: A warning from History

A blockbuster originally started out as the name of a bomb designed to level a city block in wartime. Since then it has become associated with a major commercial cinema hit. This then became the name of a once booming video rental chain empire, an empire that came crashing down in 2013 in the face of complete technological obsolescence, irrelevance and Netflix. 

Blockbuster’s hubris during the rise of Netflix is now legendary after the company turned down the opportunity to buy its burgeoning competitor due to fears that it would undermine its core rental business which is now a historical curiosity in the same way as TV rentals. Hindsight being 20-20 this is a great lesson for any modern media or technology company. Never underestimate your own relevance.

I share this cautionary tale as we face the inevitable decline of televisual and media empires. The media empires have existed more or less the same way for about 50 years. Print and broadcast dominated the schema. Then in the 1990s the Internet flashed into existence and now in 2015 this hegemony of the old media giants is not so sure. It is true that old-media and new media do interact. TV stations now use on demand services and online news pages but there is a problem.

Old media wishes to keep distributing its media on its rigid terms, which in the global world of the Internet is madness. Yes people can, will and should pay for what they consume online however this makes it all the more important to make your product accessible and your price attractive, fair or people will simply access it on their terms whatever. That is how information flow is now.

A massive irrelevance in today’s world is the idea of releasing media in specific geographic zones. I for example as a Brit cannot access American content online when Americans can. There is no, nor was there ever, a reason this should exist. The content is the same and the language is more or less the same. However if someone should try to engage with the content officially then they hit a brick wall. What then? They go to a free –normally illegal- provider. This is a waste as you lose the ability to track your viewers and any revenue you might have gained from them had an equitable system existed.

Rights holders and local laws attempt to restrict the free movement of entertainment media but this is now as effective as trying bail out the Titanic with a spoon as far as stopping them from doing so goes. They often do this in good faith by following what they know but this ignores the revolutionary economic models that they are facing. People in general can circumvent content controls, pay walls, and even sources of funding for creating their own media as has been demonstrated by torrent sites, YouTube and even Patreon. The same content is not in the hands of the same few and media organisations need to realise this now or face oblivion. The revolution has already started.

My own favourite Sport is Formula One for instant and has missed every chance to reach out to grassroots fans using free media such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook preferring to share content with its fans on its fee-for-content terms only rather than embracing ad revenue for views (it would get a lot). Music and film companies constantly try to block fair use of their content on sites like YouTube used by video-makers in good faith and perhaps opening new future audience channels in the future through spreading awareness of their product. It’s the same with TV producers who block international viewers from their content. You’ve lost a legitimate and measureable audience member. Companies are so focused on short-terminism that they’ve missed the fact that there is a gold-rush with big rewards available going on right in front of them.  

I personally believe that my generation will be the last generation where old media will survive in its current way. Future generations will expect if not demand that media be free to access wherever and at a fair price as there is no way the genie can be put back in the bottle as far as barriers to geography, usage or pricing go. There is always a way around and any attempt to place your content in tight confines will be seen as draconian or worse irrelevant. Either way people you may want to appeal to won’t engage.

If they wish to continue into the future then companies and company leaders need to realise that the old economic models are changing and their own existence is at stake right now!  


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