One man’s wave of the future is his son’s antiquarian curio. Even “Victrola” once meant hi-fi.
Blockbuster shuttered all of its remaining storefronts this week. Appropriately, the last movie rental—near closing time at a Hawaiian outlet—was the apocalyptic comedy This Is the End. Surely the credits roll on video-rental shops.
Unlike Circuit City or Eastern Airlines, the decline of Blockbuster had less to do with the flaws in the company than with trends in society. In this sense, its disappearance evokes the loss of Borders (illiteracy), Tower Records (online shoplifting), and KB Toys (abortion). The customer isn’t always right.
Blockbuster opened in Dallas in 1985, when the idea of borrowing a VHS tape for a night of home viewing seemed an upgrade over the inconvenience, sticky floors, and extortionate pricing of a night at the movies. Like the Walkman or the Atari 2600—two other booming ’80s products—Blockbuster was damned by the evolving technology that initially blessed it.
The advancement that allowed viewers to watch “Weird Science” on a whim free from the dictatorship of television programmers would soon be overwhelmed by technological progress. As DVDs replaced video cassettes, Redbox and Netflix made video rentals more convenient. DVRs, Hulu, on-demand services, and emerging Internet television similarly made Blockbuster—and Hollywood Video, which left us in 2010—obsolete.
Just as many Blockbuster customers preferred watching in the quiet of their living rooms to sitting in a dark theater next to a chatterbox suffering from an undiagnosed case of Tourette’s, they ultimately preferred home delivery of movies to traveling to rent one.
And late fees? They’re for libraries, which undercut Blockbuster by offering their offerings for free.
The quarter-century-or-so existence of Blockbuster underscores the rough democracy of capitalism. Industry leaders in one generation get left behind of the next. It’s telling that of the original twelve components of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, only General Electric remains on the index. Apart from predatory acquisitions and governmentally ordered break-ups, giant companies face the wrath of fickle consumers.
Big Business is a lot easier for small people to control than Big Government. When the market votes with their green paper ballots that they don’t like the Cadillac Cimarron, it quickly goes away. When the market votes against the Chevy Volt, Government Motors responds to the demands of bureaucrats rather than those of buyers. Health-care plans loaded with unwanted perks (maternity care, mental health services, etc.) similarly reflect a bureaucrat’s choice rather than the consumer’s.
Occasionally, the Supreme Court (Agricultural Adjustment Administration) or Congress (Interstate Commerce Commission) will rid us of an unwanted program. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule: the people are nearly impotent in the face of the potentates. Government programs are too big to fail, perversely demanding more tax dollars the worse they perform. But legitimate businesses earn money based solely on the public’s support for them. Democratic principles strangely apply more to the economic system than to our political system.
So, gladly give Blockbuster your sympathy and be glad you don’t give it your subsidy. And in a few years, its blue-and-yellow signage will fetch as many curious stares, and perhaps as many dollars, as a roadside Standard Oil marker. When businesses go out of business, their advertising becomes art. A Blockbuster sign will one day be as much a conversation piece as a rumble seat, a soda jerk, or an eight-track tape.
Blockbuster got voted off the island not because the public tired of it product. Who doesn’t like a good movie? Even the bad ones aren’t bad. Blockbuster didn’t survive because we enjoy more convenient means of delivery of the products it once provided. The market has spoken.