Ultra HD Blu-ray might survive after all... by killing Blu-ray

Sales of physical media in the last couple of years paint an unexpected picture for disc-based content

Ever since UltraHD Blu-ray discs were announced much doubt has been expressed about their prospects in the global market. What if they just replace Blu-ray discs outright, though? (Image: Gio Bartlett, Unsplash)

The Web is rife with stacks upon stacks of articles that herald the death of physical media for years now - maybe more than a decade - especially as far as movies or TV shows are concerned. For dozens of journalists and analysts, it was the "hip" thing to write about during the rise of streaming media as if helping a self-fulfilling prophecy come to pass would somehow prove them right. The truth of the matter, though, is that even after a decade of steady decline the DVD/Blu-ray/UHD Blu-ray market is still sizable and even healthy in many countries, for a number of different reasons. What might be waiting just around the corner, in fact, is a turn of events regarding those formats that very few expected.

Data coming from the US, as reported by an interesting article featured in FlatpanelsHD.com, indicates that the Ultra HD Blu-ray format - which offers the highest possible audiovisual quality for the home market bar none - is not only slowly gaining traction, but that it could potentially steal considerable market share from the Blu-ray format. The latter used to account for about 50% of disc sales worldwide with good old DVD accounting for the rest, but the introduction of UHD Blu-ray contributed to Blu-ray sales starting to shrink in 2017. Four years later: Blu-ray discs account for just 24% of the physical formats' sales in the US, down from 42% in 2018.

Blu-ray disc sales have seen a steady decline over the last four years because they are neither the best nor the cheapest optical disc medium - at a time when streaming overshadows both. (Image: Dave O'Mara, Flickr)

It makes perfect sense, of course. The home entertainment industry did a terrible job of educating the public about the advantages of Blu-ray over DVD, a last-century format that should have become obsolete years ago but is still going strong for that exact reason. Blu-ray never gained the traction it deserved, so now it finds itself in an uncomfortable place: it's not the cheapest format (that's DVD by far), it's not the best format (that's UHD Blu-ray with a more or less acceptable price premium) and streaming services such as Netflix or Disney Plus offer either comparable or higher audiovisual quality in movies and TV shows.

Blu-ray seems to have simply run out of time: once much better than streaming and incomparably better than DVD, it's now on par or worse than the former while remaining much more expensive than the latter. If Blu-ray was to succeed in becoming the format of choice for movies or TV shows in the home market, it would have happened years ago. It didn't, so Blu-ray discs now only make some sense because of the large user base they command worldwide through PS3, PS4, Xbox One S/X and standalone players. That is all.

The home video industry has made a terrible job of educating consumers regarding the advantages of Blu-ray, so the format has now simply run out of time. (Image: Brett Jordan, Unsplash)

This is further proof of the transformation the home video market is going through right now: it's becoming more and more fragmented, its different segments moving away from one another. Casual viewers who don't really care about audiovisual quality will continue to gravitate towards streaming services, no matter what happens with physical formats. Collectors will continue to buy physical discs, but that crowd is - more often than not - looking for the best audiovisual quality possible. So for them, UHD Blu-ray is preferable to Blu-ray, especially for new releases (as well as select catalog titles). Parents getting movies and TV shows for their children will probably continue buying discs, but they'll be buying DVDs because they are the cheaper option (4K TVs upscale them passably well these days anyway).

So where does Blu-ray fit in? Well, nowhere - and that's the whole point.

Common sense dictates that there should not be room for three different optical disc formats at this point, so we might end up with a high-end one and a mass-market one. UHD BD and DVD it is, then? (Image: Pixabay, Pexels)

Before the introduction of the first UHD Blu-ray discs to market in 2016, there was this big conversation on the Web whether it was actually necessary or even a good idea to promote a new optical disc format since "streaming is the future". As is usually the case, that "future" is still so far ahead, and it comes with so many caveats, that yes, a disc-based 4K HDR option available to consumers was not pointless at all. All Hollywood studios and home video publishers need to do is promote UHD Blu-ray better than they did with Blu-ray and help the former gradually replace the latter as the de facto 21st-century physical format for movies and shows. Maybe try to leverage the 10 million people who will own a disc-based PlayStation5 or Xbox Series X by the end of this year. And, sure, let parents keep buying those DVDs. When the price of UHD BDs is right, they may yet come around!