HBO Max Controversies Serve As A Reminder Of Why Physical Media Matters

There is a fairly high possibility that the HBO Max many consumers have fallen in love with might be going away soon. While the platform has been praised for its robust and consistently-available selection of movies, news recently broke that they have begun removing some streaming-only releases with no prior announcement or notice. Allegedly, the recent purge of six titles serves as the beginning of a much-wider purge of movies and television shows that the streamer plans to undergo as the Warner Bros. Discovery merger continues to wreak havoc.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether or not you think that the movies recently affected were good or not. The removal of movies specifically catered for streaming services sets a dangerous precedent regarding the stability of streaming libraries. Of course, it's important to understand that the majority of movies are passed around from streamer to streamer based on their distribution contracts. However, what happens to the movies when a platform just goes offline? Some movies will be easier to find than others, but harder-to-find titles and streaming exclusives have the potential to fall through the cracks, perhaps even slipping into inaccessible obscurity.

In the midst of uncertainty surrounding HBO Max's future, it is the best possible time to reconsider something that streaming and digital-on-demand platforms have made nearly obsolete: the act of purchasing 4K Ultra HD, Blu-rays, DVDs, or even VHS copies of your favorite movies and television shows.

Nothing digital is really owned, or even there

I am not an expert on the digital frameworks of streaming or VOD platforms, nor will I pretend to be. However, it is important to understand that even the most heavily-coded and secure platforms are prone to major changes. Think of it like a store or restaurant getting a refurbishment, only this time, there lies the possibility that you'll unfairly lose money and purchases in the process.

In what seemed like a cruel precursor to the HBO Max situation, it was announced in July that German and Austrian PlayStation consumers will no longer be able to view their purchased Studiocanal-distributed movies come the end of August. When this news was announced, it was pretty confusing; if you buy a movie, doesn't that make it permanently yours? Not necessarily. The team at Wirecutter explained in an August 2021 article that you don't actually own any digital movie you purchase. You just own the right to watch it. Unfortunately, this means that digitally-purchased movies basically have the same ownership perspective as NFTs.

In theory, all digitally-purchased movies are able to be removed by their hosting platform for any reason. Whether it is a licensing issue (such as the case between Studiocanal and certain PlayStation stores) or simply a host company removing titles of their own volition, it's not anything consumers can control. What makes it even worse is that, according to Wirecutter, this possibility is outlined in numerous VOD services' terms and conditions, meaning the consumer has already agreed to the chance of this kind of purge happening.

The quality problem

While streaming platforms like Disney+ have slowly begun increasing their bitrates (the amount of data that can be processed through screens), digital services still fail to provide a movie or TV show at its highest quality. This is likely due to the fact that the platforms these services are hosted on, particularly streaming websites, are constantly increasing bitrate capacity, resulting in inconsistent quality in pictures.

That isn't necessarily the case with physical copies of media, such as 4K Ultra HD discs. When the movie and its extras are printed on the disc, they are there for good with no updates needed. The printed materials do not have to adjust to fluctuating bitrates, so they are presented in what is considered the highest possible quality.

"Watching a film on a 4K disc will invariably look better than streaming the same movie in 4K on a streaming site," a physical media collector told Insider in 2021.

What the /Film team says

It probably isn't surprising that a good number of writers at /Film have a physical media collection of some kind. Whether it's a relatively small one or a massive one accumulated throughout the years, they all have their reasons for why they prefer physical over streaming or VOD. However, one important element outside of ensuring ownership and better picture quality stood out in their answers, and it was the communal aspect of purchasing physical media.

"I really like being able to lend things to people," wrote writer Danielle Ryan. "When I recommend a movie or show, I love being able to hand them a copy of whatever it is so they don't have to seek it out themselves."

"I simply like the visual representation of my collection," explained editor Ethan Anderton. "Someone can walk in and see my shelves full of movies, and it represents my passion and love for film. It can also make for some interesting conversation starters."

However, perhaps the most important sentiment on the subject came from editor Jacob Hall, who simply said, "A physical disc is a reminder to me that a movie isn't content. It's art."

This could not be more true in this climate. Movies and television shows are art, and they deserve to be treated with the respect they deserve, not just "content" thrown on streaming platforms and removed if they don't bring in a certain number of viewers. Discs might wear and tear as time progresses, but at least they carry these art forms in the highest quality and care possible. In order to ensure the future of art, purchasing physical media needs to make a comeback, and it needs to happen fast. Otherwise, who knows how many pieces of media will be sucked into the uncaring void of database machinery.