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DVD Death Watch

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121838__super_lAre the DVD’s days numbered? Two new recent developments are likely to affect most pop culture consumers. Wal-Mart unveiled its own video download service (first available title is the new-to-DVD Superman Returns, pictured), while the CEO of Regal Cinemas said Wednesday that Regal won’t allow the window between a film’s theatrical and DVD release dates to close completely.

But is this really a big deal? Um… yeah. Wal-Mart accounts for a full 40 percent of U.S. DVD sales, and Regal is the country’s largest theater chain (they were also the first to have pretzel bites, if memory serves). In other words, what these guys do affects millions of PopWatchers across the old U.S. of A.

But why, you ask quite logically, would Wal-Mart want to cut intoits DVD sales by offering films for downloading? Glad you asked: theydon’t. The movie download only comes (at a extra fee) with yourpurchase of the physical disc, the idea being that you can — for onelow, low Wal-Mart price — watch Superman Returnson your TV, your laptop, and your video iPod. But this just seems likeWal-Mart is aware of the slippery slope ofDVDs and downloading: it’s only a matter of time before the discsthemselves become obsolete. As stagnating DVD sales show, Americans areincreasingly curling up with an iBook and a mug of Swiss Miss insteadof plunking themselves in front of the plasma screen.

Getting in the car and driving to the multiplex is also anincreasingly unpopular option. The thing I hear again and again fromfriends is: why go to the theater when the movie will be out on DVD ina month? (That’s an exaggeration, of course. The average lag time isfour to five months, according to Regal CEO Michael Campbell. But itused to be six.) If a studio wants to release a DVD too soon after thetheatrical release, Campbell says, Regal might just refuse to show it(oh, it’s so on!). If theaters get their way, DVD sales are going tokeep tumbling, and manufacturing physical discs isn’t going to makemuch business sense anymore (see: CDs vs. iTunes). Wal-Mart (going theway of Apple and Amazon) could sell downloads without having to “pay”someone (I was going to try and keep my disdain for the big W-M out ofthis, but whatever) to crank out the discs.

Finally, a (brief) historical perspective: DVDs have only beenaround since 1997 and didn’t surpass VHS sales until 2003. 2003! Yetonce discs trumped tapes, the latter medium went the way of thedinosaur alarmingly fast (the above statistics are from Variety’s clever VHS obituary).Downloading files seemed poised to gobble up DVDs even quicker. Butwhat do you think, PopWatchers? Am I wrong? Am I not giving Netflix’s quest for world domination enough credit? Sound off on how you think you’ll be watching your collection of Wire episodes in 2010.

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