I won’t even bother defending Blu-ray’s superiority in terms of picture and audio quality, as my friend Peter Suderman did at Vox a few years back. Yes, Netflix and Hulu and Amazon and the rest have made strides in terms of ensuring HD-quality persists throughout the streaming experience, but bad connections are bad connections and quality can still be spotty. That being said, given that so many people are content to watch movies on laptops or on phones — through tinny speakers or via weak earbuds — it’s safe to say that this is a battle that has been lost. People don’t care that much about audio or visual quality; they just want to see stuff in the most convenient manner possible.
Even if you’re not an obsessive who demands Criterion Collection-caliber 4K transfers from interpositives made from the original negatives,* there’s still reason to be concerned about digital’s total victory over physical in the media wars. If you don’t own a physical copy of the thing you want to watch, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to access it at any time you choose. Your ability to access these materials depends entirely upon the whims of our corporate overlords.
Take the response to the HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland,” a shocking look at Michael Jackson’s alleged sexual abuse of children he befriended at the height of his stardom. After “Leaving Neverland” aired, “The Simpsons” executive producer James L. Brooks told the Wall Street Journal that “Stark Raving Dad,” an episode of the show that involves Homer Simpson sharing a mental hospital room with a man who claims to be Jackson, would be pulled from circulation.
“Getting the episode off all the platforms and outlets that carry the show — including streaming services, TV stations and Blu-ray/DVD box sets — won’t happen overnight,” Joe Flint reported, noting that Brooks had told him “the process has started.”
The ethical implications here are striking, given that this is little more than an effort to erase an embarrassment. Hiding the omnipresence of Jackson in our cultural milieu does nothing to help us understand how the singer, who was often surrounded by a coterie of young children, could operate with impunity right under all of our noses. Worse, it sets a precedent that anything that troubles or offends could wind up going down the memory hole alongside “Stark Raving Dad.” Given the troubles “Simpsons” producers have faced over the character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon — whose voice, as performed by Hank Azaria, has been derided as grotesquely racist in recent years — can we really trust that access to classics like the “Pulp Fiction” parody “22 Short Films About Springfield” or “Homer and Apu,” with its classic tune “Who Needs the Kwik-E-Mart?” will remain accessible in perpetuity?
Then there are the corporate shenanigans that turn digital purchases into little more than long-term rentals. As John Archer noted in Forbes last year, customers who have purchased films through iTunes have found themselves unable to access those movies via iTunes. This happens because of global rights issues and the films being withdrawn from the service only to be offered in a new version that would have to be paid for all over again. Yes, if you download the file to a hard drive you’ll continue to have access to it — but isn’t the whole point of digital purchases to free up space, physical or otherwise?
Of course, downloading a product won’t always guarantee you have access to it. Ask the folks who picked up copies of “1984” and “Animal Farm” for their Kindles, only to have Amazon delete the books after it was discovered that they had been uploaded to the bookseller without rights permissions. In both this literally Orwellian circumstance and iTunes’s fumbling with distribution rights, there are legitimate commercial interests at stake — but the ease with which companies can make your bits and bytes inaccessible should still give pause.
Because here’s one thing that’s never going to happen: James L. Brooks is never going to march into my basement, rifle through my shelves and abscond with my DVD collection of the third season of “The Simpsons.” An attachment to physical media remains the best defense against corporate censorship in a world where making problematic products disappear is becoming easier than ever.
*That means it looks real purty on your fancy schmancy big screen teevee.