Making Room for DVD: The Tipping Point: Is the VHS Format Going the Same Route as LPs in Library Collections?

By Pitman, Randy | American Libraries, November 2003 | Go to article overview

Making Room for DVD: The Tipping Point: Is the VHS Format Going the Same Route as LPs in Library Collections?


Pitman, Randy, American Libraries


ITEM: Video Business reported in late June 2003 that "for the first time, consumers in a given week have rented more DVD copies than VHS cassettes," according to the Video Software Dealers Association's weekly VidTrac report. "A total of 28.2 million DVDs were rented in the week ending June 15, compared with 27.3 million VHS units." For those keeping track, it took just over six years for the upstart format to formally surpass its quarter-century-old predecessor.

ITEM: Godfrey Reggio's 2002 Naqoyqatsi, the concluding film in his trilogy of non-narrative, Philip Glass-scored, Hopi saying-inspired films (after 1983's Koyaanisqatsi and 1988's Powaqqatsi) was released on October 14 on DVD only. Only seven weeks before, on August 26, Lions Gate's release of Matthew Barney's art film The Order (2003) bypassed VHS as well.

ITEM: Word Up! Running over 55 hours in length, DVD International's new Holy Bible: King James Version presents audio, text, and graphics for the complete Old and New Testaments on a single DVD.

To quote the koan-spouting, grunge-playing, woodenacting Hollywood superstar Keanu Reeves: "Whoa." Or, to put it another way, we have--I believe--reached what New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell called the "tipping point," in his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Little Brown, 2000). Gladwell discusses the relatively short format war (of attrition, not malice, unlike VHS and Beta) between VHS and DVD.

As the editor of Video Librarian, it is my fortune--good or bad--to have over 200 VHS and DVD titles cross my desk each month, more than enough to spot what pollsters call trends, with the most obvious among these being the inexorable shift away from VHS. Not only have screening copies sent to us over the past year from studios almost universally moved to DVD, but a quick peek at one of the glossy weekly preview catalogs from Baker and Taylor Entertainment or Ingram Entertainment confirms that nearly all the graphics for new announcements use DVD instead of VHS packaging.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In short, you don't have to be King Nebuchadnezzar to read the digital handwriting on the wall. Since prophetic handwriting is naturally followed by budgetary hand-wringing, many librarians are asking as they uncomfortably straddle this dual-format fence, just how numbered are the days of VHS? Industry pundits assure us that VHS has at least another 10 good years--a window that brings to mind a phrase I think of every time I see a prediction five or more years into the future: Monty Python's famous saying, "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition." Remember LPs? The compact disc, which debuted in 1982, outsold LPs for the first time in 1988; within two years those beloved 33-rpm vinyl records that many of us grew up with had virtually disappeared from retail outlets.

DVDs outshine VHS

To paraphrase science fiction novelist Robert A. Heinlein, the market is a harsh mistress. Undoubtedly main-stream VHS will continue its migration to the margins of the marketplace with almost exponential rapidity over the next few years. Despite my wariness over predictions, I'd be willing to wager that within the next 1,000 days the majority of new Hollywood theatrical films will not be released on VHS at all.

Movies are only the visible tip of the VHS iceberg: Thousands of children's, how-to, documentary, and performance videos are released every year that pass well below the radar of media and the marketplace. They range from unheralded profiles such as Jules at Eight (1997), the story of an 8-year-old white boy who plays blues guitar and has some of his most meaningful music conversations with his school's black janitor, to get-your-hands-dirty guides on toilet repair, not to mention the vast output from educational producers of curriculum-based programming. Until recently, DVD replication was simply too costly on a per-unit basis for such titles, which would sell in the hundreds or low thousands; but with the widespread advent of DVD-R drives in computers, prices have dropped considerably and the major duplication houses are no longer the only game in town. …

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