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7 July 2023

In praise of the DVD

The infinite choice of TV streaming has led to banality and fatigue – it’s time to embrace physical media once again.

By Fergal Kinney

Everywhere, television is shutting down. In the US the Writers Guild of America strike has forced many shows to pause production and had a chilling effect on new commissions. And what TV commissioners have been funding was already changing: a decade long spending spree on costly shows for loss-making streaming services is coming to a definitive end. The Slate journalist Sam Adams has termed our current moment “trough TV”, the comedown from peak TV as commissioners take fewer risks. Netflix is clamping down on users sharing passwords, and junking lots of its catalogue. In the UK, the Channel 4 commissioner Ian Katz has warned of a commissioning freeze until at least the autumn. Last month’s Succession finale increasingly looks like the end of not just one series but a broadcasting epoch. It was certainly the end of my subscription to the platform it was released on.

Imperial but unloved, TV streaming feels analogous to dating apps over the last decade. A decade ago, online dating was a hack to access a conveyor belt of great options. Now, disillusionment with the apps is utterly widespread. Likewise, for the home viewer, eyeballs – and bank accounts – are divided between Netflix, Now TV, Disney+ and a plethora of smaller services such as MUBI, BFI Player and BritBox.

As media technology accelerates, I wonder at exactly which point I would like to have paused progress, when the scales of innovation were tipped in my favour. Aged 21, and living in a festering south Manchester house-share (the rental price of which I would now trade a kidney for), I had a membership to the long-gone LoveFilm DVD subscription. The monthly £4.99 DVD postal service was a cinematic education and cultural lifeline for a student who could not afford cinema tickets. Its physicality was key to its appeal: the quicker I watched the discs and returned them, the sooner the next fix would come through my door.

In today’s limitless culture landscape, the sheer breadth of choice scrambles my recall; what do I even like? One of my least favourite experiences is watching my time on a weeknight evaporate as I scroll titles on apps trying to find what to watch – it’s crushing.

[See also: The Britpop nostalgia complex]

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No more. Physical media has, for me, never been more alluring. It’s there, it works, it does not rely on my flat’s erratic WiFi connection. When I look at the slight and plastic spines of my DVD collection, I see something genuinely personalised to me as well as a reminder and prompt for my tastes. It’s a selection impossible to access on a single streaming service, and one that cannot be removed by the whims of copyright agreements.

You don’t get much for a pound in inflation Britain. But in the majority of charity shops you can get at least one DVD, often two or three. I do not want to embrace my inner Lee Anderson MP – insisting that families cut back on Netflix and feast instead for a week on a discarded Paddy McGuinness live DVD. For me, playing a disc is luxury and scrolling through a digital glut feels more like thin gruel. A fun game: withdraw however much you spend on streaming services monthly and head into CeX, the second-hand entertainment store that has quietly become my favourite shop on the high street.

On social media, I have enjoyed seeing similarly-inclined souls making previously obsolete media into a minor fetish object. The London film screening and podcast brand Deeper Into Movies’ Instagram page regularly shares inspiring DVD and Blu-Ray finds, many of which have begun to acquire their own Y2K kitsch appeal. Weyes Blood, the acclaimed US singer-songwriter, asks that her fans shower her with DVDs on stage as gifts. It’s an act of fun and intimate fan dialogue that speaks to both the deep influence of cinema on the singer but also her incisive critique of late-stage capitalism and its detritus.

When Martin Scorsese said that “the art of cinema is being systematically devalued and reduced to content”, he was referring to the direct consequences of the streaming era’s digital glut. It isn’t fanciful to find physical film and TV media a useful counterpoint to this. Of course, many people never stopped collecting. Like record collectors during the CD boom of the 1990s, what some perceived as a luddite eccentricity now appears prophetic.

Streaming will continue to be part of how I access media. Tonight on the All4 app, I will finish Bridget Christie’s outstanding new sitcom The Change. But I will also be working through Dekalog, the Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 1989 masterwork, both parts purchased on DVD recently for £1. Don’t look for the ten-part series on UK streaming. It should be there, but it isn’t.

As television stands at a juncture, technology that a decade ago felt like junk – when I struggled to justify hauling boxes of DVDs from one rented house to another – has renewed appeal. Limitless choice and the infinite scroll once felt like a bounty. Now it looks more like a landfill.

[See also: Michael Bracewell’s anatomy of English nostalgia]

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