Blockbuster Nostalgia

With the year 2020 being what it is — and we don’t need to belabor the point, do we? — can we expect to see an increase in nostalgia for years and things gone by?  Even things that, at the time, seemed like unexceptionable, even annoying, elements of our daily lives and routines, like, say . . . Blockbuster video stores?

exterior-hero-newsroomfeaturedThere is reportedly one — one! — remaining Blockbuster store in the United States.  Once a standard tenant in virtually every strip mall in every town in America, as overwhelming in sheer number as the immense clouds of passenger pigeons that formerly filled the skies of the Midwest as they flew by, Blockbuster video stores have followed the passenger pigeon into extinction.  The last of its kind is located in Bend, Oregon, where the local residents have apparently made a conscious effort to keep the store afloat.  I suppose there is a certain point of civic pride in having the last Blockbuster in your town.

And now the proprietor of the last Blockbuster wants to thank its supporters and give those who are interested a little up-close-and-personal taste of the ’90s video rental experience.  For a measly $4.00 — one penny more than a movie rental — you can rent the store and spend the night taking in every kitschy detail of the Blockbuster experience, from the familiar blue and gold ticket stub shaped sign on the wall, to the racks of movies and “new releases” in their sturdy plastic boxes, to the impulse purchase shelves groaning with supplies of candy, chips, and soda.

I guess I can understand the urge to immerse yourself in an earlier, pre-coronavirus experience, when no one wore masks and everyone handled the same plastic video containers without giving it a second thought, but spending the night in a Blockbuster store gorging on junk food, guzzling Mountain Dew, and watching Independence Day wouldn’t be my choice.  For too many years, my overwhelming emotion in walking into a Blockbuster was a brimming rage at having to pay late fees for some crappy Hollywood product — late fees that were totally avoidable if the person who rented the movie had just watched it and returned it promptly.  Even thinking about it now, years later, I feel a sour taste of that unique combination of anger, disgust, and embarrassment.

I guess I don’t need to spend the night in a Blockbuster to relive that sensation.  The scarring late fee experience will be with me, always.

The Fall Of ESPN

Is ESPN the Blockbuster of broadcast TV?

Those of you who are over, say, 35 probably remember Blockbuster.  It was the place where you went to buy, or rent, new video releases.  For a time in the ’90s, you couldn’t go to any suburban strip shopping center without seeing a busy Blockbuster store thronging with people eager to get their hands on the new releases.  But then . . . things changed.  New methods of getting entertainment delivered directly to our houses were developed that made going to the Blockbuster store seem inconvenient, and expensive, and clunky, and kind of a pain in the ass.  And before you knew it, all of those Blockbuster stores were gone.

sc2ESPN seems to be following the same path.  From the new station that padded its programming with weird sports events like Australian rules football games, ESPN grew into a glitzy, multi-channel cable TV megaplayer that had an enormous impact on the sports segment of American culture.  Athletes would make a great play and mimic the Sportscenter theme song, hoping that their play would be broadcast on that nightly highlights show.  ESPN broadcast anchors became celebrities.  In 2011, ESPN had 100 million cable TV subscribers.

But then . . . things changed.  ESPN is down to 88 million subscribers, and those numbers continue to decline.  Ratings are down, and the channel has had to make some very public layoffs of some of its familiar on-air talent.  Even this NFL draft weekend, when the coverage on ESPN used dominate the sports conversation, ESPN doesn’t seem to be quite so significant anymore.  Why is this happening?  In part, it’s because people are giving up on standard cable TV in favor of watching content on the internet.  Cable TV packages are expensive, and watching events on the internet is free.  So why sign up for increasingly expensive cable TV programming with a standard package filled with channels that you don’t watch, when you can save that money and watch what you want on the internet?

Doesn’t that sound familiar, in a Blockbuster kind of way?

There are other proffered reasons for ESPN’s decline — the high salaries it pays on-air talent, the rising cost of obtaining broadcast rights for sports events, and even the theory that ESPN has increasingly injected “liberal” political views into its broadcasts, irritating sports fans with more conservative political views — but I think the real reason is the cultural change in people’s viewing habits.  When cultural shifts occur, companies can go from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the ditch in a hurry.

Who knows?  In a few years, even that iconic Sportcenter theme song might be as forgotten as the once-familiar Blockbuster logo.

Lessons From The Blockbuster Bankruptcy

On Thursday, Blockbuster Inc. filed for bankruptcy.  The retail video rental chain, which employs about 25,000 people, is close to $1 billion in debt and is getting hammered by Netflix and other companies that offer different approaches to delivery of movies and entertainment options to consumers.

I haven’t been to a Blockbuster store in years, but I pass one on my commute to work every day, and there has been a noticeable decline in traffic at that store.  Consumers obviously prefer the mail order/on-line alternatives to driving to the nearest Blockbuster store, rummaging through the shelves in hopes of finding a worthwhile video to watch that night, and then paying late fees when they forget to return the movie in timely fashion.

The lesson of the Blockbuster bankruptcy is that the tastes and practices of American consumers are ever-changing and often influenced by new technology — which is why so many people are skeptical when the federal government tries to pick winners and losers, subsidizes particular industries or lines of business, or otherwise attempts to influence consumer choices or the direction of the American economy.  Blockbuster was once a mighty company, with busy stores in every shopping mall.  People who looked at the company in its heyday probably thought that, of course, Blockbuster would be profitable indefinitely.   When something better came along, however, Americans left the Blockbuster model behind without a second thought.

At least no one is suggesting that we should bail Blockbuster out.