SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (AP) — Netflix’s DVD-by-mail rental service has been relegated as a relic in the age of video streaming, but there’s still a steady — albeit dwindling — audience of diehards like Amanda Konkle who are happily paying to receive these discs in the iconic red and white envelopes.
“When you open your mailbox, it’s always something you actually want instead of just bills,” said Konkle, a resident of Savannah, Georgia, who subscribes to DVD-in-the-Mail service. Netflix since 2005.
It’s a little treat that Konkle and other still-devoted DVD subscribers are enjoying, but for how long is unclear. Netflix declined to comment for this story, but during a media event in 2018Netflix co-founder and co-CEO Reed Hastings has suggested the DVD-by-mail service could shut down around 2023.
When – not if – it happens, Netflix will shut down a service that has shipped more than 5 billion records across the United States since its inception nearly a quarter century ago. And it will echo the downfall of the thousands of Blockbuster video rental stores that closed because they couldn’t counter the threat posed by Netflix’s DVD-by-mail alternative.
The eventual demise of its DVD-by-mail service has been inevitable ever since Hastings decided to spin it off from a then fledgling video streaming service in 2011. At the time, Hastings floated the idea of renaming the service to Qwikster – a failed idea that was so widely ridiculed that it was satirized on “Saturday Night Live”. It eventually settled on its current, more prosaic handle, DVD.com. The operation is now based out of a nondescript office in Fremont, Calif., located about 20 miles from Netflix’s sleek campus in Los Gatos, Calif.
Shortly before the video streaming split, the DVD-by-mail service had over 16 million subscribers, a number that has now dropped to around 1.5 million subscribers, all in the United States, based calculations taken from Netflix’s limited disclosures about the service. in its quarterly reports. Netflix’s video streaming service now has 223 million subscribers worldwide, including 74 million in the United States and Canada.
“The DVD-to-mail business left the Netflix that everyone knows and watches today,” Netflix’s first CEO Marc Randolph said in an interview at a cafe across the street from the post office. of Santa Cruz, California.
The 110-year-old post office has become a landmark in Silicon Valley history as it was where Randolph sent a Patsy Cline CD to Hastings in 1997 to test if a disc could be delivered via the US Postal Service without being damaged.
The disc arrived at Hastings unblemished, prompting the duo in 1998 to launch a DVD rental by mail website that they always knew would be supplanted by even more convenient technology.
“It was planned obsolescence, but our bet was that it would take longer than most people thought at the time,” Randolph said.
With the success of Netflix’s streaming service, it might be easy to assume that anyone still paying to receive DVDs in the mail is a technophobe or someone living in a remote part of the United States without reliable internet access. But subscribers say they stick with the service so they can rent movies that would otherwise be hard to find on streaming services.
For 35-year-old Michael Fusco, that includes the 1986 film “Power” starring then-young Richard Gere and Denzel Washington and 1980s “The Big Red One” starring Lee Marvin. It’s one of the main reasons he subscribed to DVD-by-service since 2006, when he was just a freshman in college, and he didn’t intend to cancel it now.
“I’ve been getting it for almost half my life, and it’s been a big part of it,” Fusco said. “When I was young, it helped me discover voices I probably wouldn’t have heard. I still have memories of making movies and blowing them away.
Tabetha Neumann is among subscribers who rediscovered the DVD service during the throes of the pandemic shutdowns in 2020 after running out of things to watch on her video streaming service. So she and her husband signed up again for the first time since the cancellation in 2011. Now they’re loving it so much they’re getting a plan that lets them keep up to three records at a time, an option that currently costs $20 per month. (compared to $10 per month for the one-disc plan).
“When we started browsing all the movies we wanted to see, we realized it was cheaper than paying $5 per movie on some streaming services,” Neumann said. “Also, we found a lot of old horror movies, and that genre isn’t really important in streaming.”
Konkle, who wrote a book about Marilyn Monroe movies, says she still finds movies on the DVD service – like the 1954 film “Cattle Queen of Montana,” starring future US President Ronald Reagan in the alongside Barbara Stanwyck and the 1983 French film “Sugar Cane Alley” — which help her teach her film studies classes as an associate professor at Georgia Southern University. It’s a viewing habit she doesn’t doesn’t usually share with her classes because “most of my students don’t know what a DVD is,” Konkle, 40, said with a laugh.
But for all the DVD service’s attractions, subscribers are starting to notice signs of deterioration as the company has fallen from more than $1 billion in annual revenue a year ago to an amount likely to fall below $200 million in revenue this year.
Katie Cardinale, a subscriber who lives in Hopedale, Mass., says she now has to wait an extra two to four days for the discs to arrive in the mail because they’re being shipped from a New Jersey fulfillment center instead of Boston. (Netflix doesn’t disclose how many DVD distribution centers still operate, but there were once about 50 in the United States).
Konkle says more discs now come with cracks or other flaws and it takes “an eternity” to get them replaced. And nearly every subscriber noticed that the selection of DVD titles had shrunk considerably from the service’s peak years when Netflix boasted it had over 100,000 different movies and TV shows on disc.
Netflix no longer discloses the size of its DVD library, but subscribers surveyed by the AP all reported that the shrinking selection is making it harder to find famous movies and popular TV series that were once regularly available on the service. . Instead, Netflix is now sorting requests for titles such as the first season of the award-winning series “Ted Lasso” – a release that can be purchased on DVD – into a “saved” queue, signaling that it could decide to store it in the future. , depending on demand.
Knowing the end is in sight, Randolph said he will mourn the death of the DVD service he brought to life while taking comfort that his legacy will live on.
“Netflix’s DVD business was an integral part of what Netflix was and still is,” he said. “It’s in the company’s DNA.
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