Back when the VCR first appeared, along with the video-rental market it spawned, it offered consumers something they had never had before in their home entertainment experience: do-it-yourself programmability. Renting a movie from the video store bought you not just two hours of entertainment. It bought you any two hours of entertainment–on your own schedule, continuous or not, experienced once or repeatedly–anywhere you had a VCR, which fairly quickly became anywhere you had a TV. In exchange for that flexibility, consumers were willing to suffer the inconvenience of a return trip to the video store.
The studios flattered themselves by insisting their content was “king,” and that their movies provided most of the value for renters. But the evidence says otherwise. For a decade and a half, consumers routinely put up with having to rent something other than their first choice of title because the basic value proposition of renting–any two hours of entertainment–was greater than the value of any particular title.
Let’s stipulate that the $100 million price tag being bandied about for Walmart’s acquisition of Vudu is exaggerated, or includes various earn-out targets that likely will never be met, making the ultimate price something less than nine figures. Walmart hinted at as much in its press release, indicating the acquisition would “not be material” to its first fiscal quarter despite being scheduled to close within that period, suggesting there are triggers and contingencies in the deal that will play out over time, if at all.
Or maybe not. Perhaps, as has been suggested, Vudu, somehow, simply blew smoke up Walmart’s ass and convinced it to overpay for a marginal VOD provider. Or perhaps, as Streaming Media’s Dan Rayburn argues, Walmart simply doesn’t know what it’s doing in digital delivery and is setting itself up for another massive VOD fail.
But I think that’s too narrow a view of what Walmart is up to.
From Walmart’s perspective, Vudu has a number of valuable assets that make it more than simply a VOD provider with some nice content licensing deals. One of those is the HDX encoding format, which Vudu introduced back in 2008. With HDX, Vudu claims, it can deliver genuine 1080p video over the Internet in 4.5 Mbs of bandwidth. The format is optimized for LCD and plasma screens over 40-inches in size and incorporates a process Vudu calls TruFilm, which simulates the cinematic experience in a home theater by preserving film grain and other textural qualities of film.
Having failed to put forth a competitive consumer proposition to counter Redbox’s dollar-a-night DVD rentals, the studios are on the verge of accomplishing what, from the point of view of their own economic interests, is the next best thing: they have brought the rental kiosk operator to heel and effectively forced it to accept a 28-day window after street date before it begins loading their DVD releases into its ever-expanding red maw.
On Tuesday, Redbox and Warner Bros. announced an agreement to settle the litigation the kiosk company had brought against the studio last year. As part of the deal, Redbox agreed to a 28-day “vending” window and to limit sales of used Warner discs. In return, Warner will allow Redbox to acquire its releases at a lower cost and promised to “cooperate” with Redbox on possible future digital delivery ventures.
While Tuesday’s settlement applies only to Warner, it’s widely expected that similar deals are in the works with Twentieth Century-Fox and NBC Universal, which are involved in similar litigation with the Redbox. Assuming that happens, new releases will essentially disappear from Redbox kiosks.
Make no mistake. Redbox rentals were hurting DVD sales and undercutting the studios’ other revenue streams. Its dollar-a-night rentals accounted for roughly one of every five dollars consumers spent on DVDs last year, and it returned a far smaller share of that dollar to the studios than Wal-Mart sends them when it sells a DVD. And from the studios’ perspective, the trend lines were getting worse. Something had to be done.