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Remembering the 80s: Moonlighting

Posted in botch, entertainment, TV Shows by commorancy on July 24, 2018

MoonlightingIn 1985, Moonlighting began as a show TV viewers seemed to both love and hate. I personally became very fond of this show at the time. Today, it is simply a product of its time period. Let’s explore.

80s TV

After coming out of the 70s, where crime dramas tended to rule the roost, the 80s spawned more lighthearted comedy to balance out those 70s serials. In fact, the 80s spawned a lot of TV shows that are fondly remembered. One of these is the screwball romantic comedy Moonlighting produced by Glenn Gordon Caron.

Moonlighting hearkens back to screwball comedies of the 40s with a straight man (or woman) character Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) to the cuckoo character David Addison (Bruce Willis). At the time, Willis was an unknown. I’m sure the TV executives weren’t sure he could pull off the role at the time, but once the chemistry between Bruce and Cybill became palpable, all executive misgivings evaporated.

Moonlighting and Chemistry

Like Charlie’s Angels before Moonlighting, this cast was as tight on chemistry as they come. The on-screen chemistry between these two actors was amazing to behold. Unfortunately, what made the show a winner would also see to its demise. The quick and witty repartee between Maddie and David would become deeply symbolic of what went on behind the scenes. After the second season, the apparently deep and constant bickering between the two actors would ultimately end up in tabloids, tarnishing this series irrevocably. However, what ultimately did this series in was its writing, production in-fighting and Cybill’s pregnancy.

Biting off more…

The witty rapid fire repartee of the Moonlighting character dialogue wasn’t without peril. Oh, it was most certainly fun to watch. Apparently, each script required double the amount of written exposition found in a similar series. This meant writing double the amount of pages in a script. Effectively, each episode was two episodes worth of material. Instead of cranking out several episodes rapidly, writers were only able to produce half the number in the same period. Because of the quick witty interrupting repartee, sometimes with Maddie and David talking over one another simultaneously, this would only serve to delay how quickly an episode could be shot.

At the time, it was said that it took upwards of sometimes 10-14 days to complete one episode of Moonlighting when most series with half the dialogue took about 5-7 days.

For both filming and writing reasons, trying to reliably release one episode per week was a chore for the Moonlighting team. This meant that episodes didn’t reliably show up every week. Usually there was a rerun in between new episodes. This also meant you’d never know if the show that week would be a rerun or a new episode until it showed up in TV Guide. This didn’t happen during season one and two because these seasons had many episodes in the can by the time the show aired. However, once the series airings caught up to the currently filmed episode, they never could get ahead again.

For a viewer, this unknown led to a lot of disappointment after finding out that this week’s episode was a three or more weeks old rerun. That’s not to say that those episodes weren’t funny, but they were way too recent to rewatch. This problem stagnated the series and was Moonlighting’s first blemish. More blemishes would show as time progressed. Though, the reruns were helpful if you missed that episode.

First Two Seasons

For the first two seasons of this series, which encompassed a total of 24 episodes (6 in season one and 18 in season two), the series kept its chemistry entirely on track. The writers kept Maddie and David in check and at just the proper distance from one another as Maddie constantly played hard to get. The constant keeping-David-at-arms-length premise kept the sexual tension at just the right level. It’s what kept people coming back week after week to see if Maddie finally gets together with David. Between the magic of the witty repartee and keeping David and Maddie at arm’s length, this was the show’s mojo. However, the witty rapid dialog and sexual tension began to wear a little thin by season three. Viewers wanted to finally see David and Maddie get together. Careful what you wish for.

Season Three

In Season three, when Maddie and David finally hook up in the episode I am curious… Maddie, the series deflates like a balloon. That episode singlehandedly took the wind out of the sails of Moonlighting. Not only did the sexual tension vanish, the constant rumors of the on-set fighting between Cybill and Bruce began appearing in tabloids and only served as a major distraction to the series. This coupled with Cybill’s real life pregnancy and Bruce’s leave to be in Die Hard left the series in a quandary:

  • Incorporate the pregnancy into the show or go on without her
  • Go on with or without Bruce

This is also where the actor’s real lives intruded into the production of this fine series. This season also marks when the series ran off the rails.

Season Four

At this point in the series, had I been the producer, I might have opted to create episodes with other characters while Cybill takes maternity leave if Bruce had been available. However, because both lead actors were otherwise tied up with outside commitments, the choice should have been to delay any further production of the series. The network apparently didn’t want this which led to a bad decision.

After the series introduced Agnes DiPesto (Allyce Beasley) as more than just a charming rhyming receptionist and brought in Herbert Viola (Curtis Armstrong) as her love interest, the series tried expanding on these two characters in their own episodes while waiting on Bruce and Cybill to be available. This really didn’t work. Beasley and Armstrong had very little on-screen chemistry leaving the episodes flat and boring. Beasley was charming as the rhyming receptionist role, but she wasn’t in any way able to carry the series in an expanded role. Neither could Armstrong. Together, they simply had no chemistry together nor were the characters leading character material. They simply could not carry this series.

By this point, I felt that the series was way offtrack. At the time, I knew it was only a matter of time before Moonlighting was cancelled. Not only was the sexual tension lost, the series began focusing on forgettable side character arcs that didn’t matter. This all happened simply because the two lead actors were unavailable. You can’t run a series when your leads are missing in action. While I understand Cybill’s pregnancy, I can’t understand why the series allowed Bruce Willis to sign a contract to be in Die Hard while the series was still in production. This just makes no sense.

Without its leads, the series should have taken a hiatus. Coupled with the slow shooting schedule, the longer than typical scripts, the show just couldn’t make any headway. If this had had a normal filming schedule, they could have put a few (or many) episodes in the can in advance of both Cybill’s and Bruce’s departure and then had them to fill out the time slots when the actors were unavailable. Because of the size of the scripts, this was impossible. Though, they did get pre-work from Cybill before her maternity leave and before season four began. But, this pre-work was filmed before the full episodes were fully scripted or shot.

By the time Cybill went on leave with her pregnancy and Bruce was tied up with Die Hard, this meant that a lot of season four was created by the actors phoning in their parts. As stated above, Cybill had pre-shot her dialogue scenes separately which had to be worked into as yet uncreated episodes. Because the leads were never seen together in scenes, the series ratings continued to decline. You can’t exactly create sexual tension between two characters when they’re talking to each other over the phone and not in the same room.

The ratings didn’t improve when the series tried focusing on DiPesto and Viola in an attempt to carry the series. In season three, not only had Maddie and David come together and split, the series introduced Sam Crawford (Mark Harmon) as Maddie’s new love interest. By season four, Maddie gets pregnant (assumed to be by Sam, but could have been David), thus integrating her pregnancy (and the unnecessary Sam character) into season four. It was a horrible plot choice, particularly the ambiguity of the father of the baby.

There’s no way faster to lose the hot model image than by knocking up your main character, particularly if by a transient and unnecessary character. This third character also transformed the series from a twosome into a threesome, which also didn’t work. The chemistry between these three did not work at all. This further served to degrade this series into a train wreck about to crash. Not only had Maddie and David gotten together and split forever, Maddie takes on a new boyfriend which is assumed she consummates that relationship with a baby. It was the wrong play. It added a new character dynamic at the wrong time into a series that least needed it. It also implied that Sam, not David, was the father of the baby. As well, having characters phoning in their parts didn’t make the episodes great. It would have been a better choice not to incorporate the pregnancy or Sam at all. The best choice was hiatus.

By halfway through the season, I’d grown tired of seeing stories about DiPesto and Viola and Maddie and Sam. The series was originally about the detective agency and the relationship between Maddie and David. We lost that when the series began focusing stories away from Maddie and David and more on other characters. The magic, at this point, was irreparably lost and the ratings continued to reflect that change in creative direction.

As for Maddie’s baby, just think what would have happened to the Charlie’s Angels ratings had one of the main characters gotten pregnant on Charlie’s Angels? That series would have tanked harder than when Farrah Fawcett left the series. The Charlie’s Angels story is about hot female detectives performing detective work. Not about rearing children or getting knocked up. Same for Moonlighting. Moonlighting was about a hot model owning a detective agency. It’s not about getting knocked up and rearing babies.

By season four, the writers had lost their way with the plots. This was in part because, according to the tabloids, the actors were not only fighting with each other, they were also fighting over what they were being paid. It was also in part because of the lack of their lead actor’s availability to film episodes.  It was also in part due to the writers strike. This led to poor story choices and a swirl of tabloid gossip.

Season Five

By this season and after the writers strike concluded, which cut short the final episode of season four, the writers and producers seemed to have realized the error of their ways with Maddie’s pregnancy and penned a season opener that sees Maddie miscarry and lose the baby. It was too little, too late. It was also a bad idea overall. Setting Maddie up to have a baby, see her carry it and then miscarry? This isn’t a topic for a comedy show. This topic on this show misfired. This is a detective show, not a home and family show. The damage was already done.

By season five, the show couldn’t get its mojo back for a number of reasons. The first reason is because of the lack of enthusiasm by the show’s stars. Bruce had further created a successful new franchise in Die Hard. Cybill now had twins and wanted out of the long working hours to be with them. The second reason is that the writing failed to go back to Blue Moon cases with Maddie and David in the office trying to rekindle the sexual tension spark with witty repartee instead of dealing with Maddie’s personal life. This change in show direction was due to Glenn Gordon Caron’s departure. The creative team was gutted. The episode that attempted to reignite the sexual tension spark failed and tanked the ratings further. Ultimately, season three showed it had entirely spent its mojo capital when it got Maddie and David together. Everything after that point couldn’t save the series from cancellation. If season four was the purchase of the coffin, season five nailed it shut.

Aresto Momentum…

Even still, the show did reach two more seasons after David and Maddie got together.  That’s respectable, but not necessarily unexpected. Some of the episodes in seasons four and five were okay, if not a little tired. However, the show still had a lot of momentum going into into the fourth season if only the actors had been available to shoot every episode and keep that momentum going. Unfortunately, Moonlighting just couldn’t withstand the turmoil, chaos and the cast unavailability. The series eventually succumbed to its ratings slump and the eventual loss of Glenn Gordon Caron, the series creator by season five due to a rift between Cybill and Glenn. That change in the creative team didn’t help the stories in any way.

The Fourth Wall

By the third season, the shows regularly opened with David and Maddie staring directly at the camera offering some kind of message. Usually the message existed simply because the show ran short on time and they needed to fill it. These messages made no bones about it. These show opening messages would become the first salvo in fourth wall breaking that the series would begin exploring.

Personally, while I didn’t mind the show openers, I didn’t want to see fourth wall breaks within an episode. It is what it is. The show would take this to the extreme in the final episode. The series ending in season 5 shows the crew breaking down the entire set while David and Maddie are still trying to play their detective character roles while the producer states that the show has been cancelled. It was somewhat funny to watch, but it really dissed the show. Sure, it’s fun for shows to poke fun at themselves, but this went way beyond what I thought was appropriate for a professional series.

Everything that went wrong with the series was pretty much summed up in the series closing episode by breaking down that set.

A product of its time

Moonlighting was cute, funny and endearing when at its best. It was a hot mess when at its worst. However, it was also a product of the 80s in which it was spawned. Time has not been kind to this series. Producers today reference this series as something to avoid when creating new productions. They simply don’t want to revisit what happened when Maddie and David finally got together. That single episode is now considered the poster child of what not to do with characters in a TV series.

Because Moonlighting never went into syndication in the traditional way, it simply hasn’t had the power of reruns on its side. I don’t think syndication would have helped this series much, anyway. Unlike I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch, which saw continual and never ending reruns, Moonlighting never got that chance. It’s probably a good thing.

The series was fun to watch during its era, but today the show’s comedy and antics seem antiquated and pretentious. Where I Love Lucy is mostly timeless, Moonlighting is a time capsule out of time when watched today. This show was definitely a product of the 80s with its shoulder pads and dated hair styles and clothing. If you like 80s TV, it’s a must watch. However, if you’re looking for something modern and relevant, you won’t find that in Moonlighting. The stories are definitely dated to its era.

If you really want to watch this series at its absolute best, I suggest watching seasons one and two and season three up to I am curious… Maddie and stop there. The last episode of season 5 is fun to watch if for no other reason than to watch the cast break through the fourth wall. Though, you can watch season four and five, don’t expect much from these two final seasons. Season three is ultimately where the series should have ended.

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A history of the DIVX DVD

Posted in botch, business, movies by commorancy on April 29, 2018

In 1998 (almost 20 years ago), a new DVD rental format arrived named DIVX (aka Digital Video Express). It purported to be a DVD rental format that had no late fees and the media didn’t need to be returned… at least those were the benefits purported to the consumer. What they didn’t tell you was that you would need to buy a brand new expensive DVD player to play them. Let’s explore.

DIVX versus DivX

To get this confusion cleared up quickly, DIVX was a brand name assigned to a new DVD rental standard introduced by Circuit City and the entertainment law firm Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca and Fischer in 1998. However, it’s not entirely clear what problem Circuit City was trying to solve by introducing the DIVX rental format when DVD was already useful enough for rentals.

The DIVX brand name, introduced by Circuit City, bears no relationship to the DivX or Xvid video encoding standards. Even though there is no relationship by Circuit City to the DivX encoder, there is a slight reverse relationship from the DivX encoder to the DIVX brand. In fact, the original name of the DivX encoder was actually DivX ;-)

Yes, this encoder name included the winking smiley. This smiley was actually a nod (and sarcasm) towards Circuit City’s then soon-to-be-defunct DIVX rental standard. Here’s what the DivX Wikipedia article says of the early days of the video encoder named DivX ;-).

DivX ;-) (not DivX) 3.11 Alpha and later 3.xx versions refers to a hacked version of the Microsoft MPEG-4 Version 3 video codec (not to be confused with MPEG-4 Part 3) from Windows Media Tools 4 codecs. The video codec, which was actually not MPEG-4 compliant, was extracted around 1998 by French hacker Jerome Rota (also known as Gej) at Montpellier.

So then, what does DivX ;-) have to do with the DIVX DVD format? Not much other than DivX ;-) making a tongue-in-cheek poke at Circuit City’s DIVX rental format. Hopefully, this clears up any confusion around this convoluted naming.

DIVX as a rental standard

The primary impetus to build the new DIVX rental standard by Circuit City was probably brand recognition. At the time, Circuit City was considered the second largest electronics retailer behind Best Buy. The Circuit City management was obviously willing to do anything to become the number one electronics retailer, including dreaming up technology ideas that didn’t need to be built. Meaning that by 1998, Blockbuster had the rental market sewn up. However, Circuit City sought to disrupt that by trying to create a new standard that not only simultaneously upset Blockbuster’s cart, but introduced a new format that would bring more recognition to the Circuit City brand (and, of course, generate more hardware and rental sales). As a side note, Circuit City was also the second largest appliance retailer behind Sears at that time.

Here’s the Circuit City’s DIVX promo video (skip to 0:17 to begin an unrealistic family scenario, press 1 to skip the intro entirely or jump to 4:19 to begin use case demonstration). Don’t feel obligated to watch the whole thing.

Now, let’s watch this training video to better understand how then CEO Richard L. Sharp saw DIVX’s future within Circuit City. Pay close attention to his statements during the opening segments of this video. Again, don’t feel obligated to watch the whole thing.

Unfortunately, Circuit City’s management goals were way too ambitious and overconfident. They also dropped into a rabbit hole with this DIVX venture that took them away from their core retail business and caused them to spend millions to create and support a format that didn’t live up to the hype. In fact, it might even be considered that failure of the DIVX format ushered in the downward slide of Circuit City into oblivion. While Circuit City was a reasonable electronics retailer, they didn’t have any presence in the video rental market. When they introduced DIVX, the assumed strategy was to add $4-5 rentals and boost DVD player sales in the Circuit City and Good Guys stores. The management team thought that this rental business would somehow take them to the next level. If only they had adopted standard DVD rentals instead.

As shown in the demo, DIVX boasted a 48 hour rental period with no need to return the disc when the rental period ended. However, to use DIVX, you had to invest in a brand new type of DVD player that also supported the DIVX format. Tada! Here’s the catch. This is also where Circuit City comes into the picture. You’d have to run on over to your local Circuit City (or one of several other retailers owned by CC, like Good Guys) to buy one of these newfangled DIVX DVD player doodads. A doodad that might cost you $100-150 more than a DVD player without DIVX. At least, this is what the management at Circuit City hoped you would do.

This idea for introducing this new format was a huge misfire for Circuit City. In addition to the picture quality problems described just below, the DIVX player contained a modem that required the player to dial-up and register itself before you could play any DIVX discs. It also apparently dialed-up twice a day to register any new purchases and download advertisements. This modem required a physical telephone line plugged into the unit to dial home. This then authorized not only your player, but supplied the player with the necessary information to authorize playback of a rental disc you recently picked up. This concept all worked reasonably well, except for the fact that several privacy groups felt that this dial home feature meant that Circuit City (or whomever) could keep tabs on your viewing habits. Little did we know then exactly how much spying would become commonplace with sites like Google and Facebook. Anyway, that privacy concern didn’t help boost efforts to sell DIVX into main stream. Of course, it wasn’t the only problem.

Poor Movie Quality

The actual DIVX DVDs themselves failed to contain the more advanced features found on a standard DVD, such as 16:9 anamorphic widescreen needed to fill a large flat panel. DIVX movie discs also failed to contain alternate audio commentary and extra features commonly found on standard DVDs. Instead, these DIVX DVDs simply contained 4:3 cropped pan and scan versions of the film… a subpar version. This was a huge misfire for the format. When you can get a better looking film on standard DVD, why would you rent the crappier DIVX format for $5? Yet more consumer dilemma.

Consumer Misunderstanding

Because a DIVX DVD appears to be a standard DVD (it looks the same), some consumers didn’t understand that they needed to buy a new player to play the DIVX media. Instead, they bought the DIVX disc, took it home and inserted it into their regular DVD players only to find that it failed to work. They would then find that they couldn’t return the disc because it was open. The misunderstanding of this new format caused grief among would-be consumers and left a sour taste for this format. This problem only served to fracture the DVD market. Worse, who’s willing to buy a brand new and expensive DIVX player just to recover a $5 loss? Not many. This problem didn’t serve Circuit City well.

It seems that Circuit City’s commercials likely didn’t much help clear this misunderstanding. Let’s watch a Circuit City commercial from this era with that same guy from the Demo reel:

There were also a number of commercials released during 1998 and 1999 that failed to mention DIVX at all… like the following commercial from 1998. You’d think a company like Circuit City spending millions to try and force adoption of their new brainchild would advertise the DIVX format on every commercial, if even only a mention at the very end. Nope. You can’t sell something if you don’t market it.

Landfill Problems

One of the touted benefits to consumers would be throw-away discs. You’d spend $4-5 for each disc, but you didn’t need to return any discs after the 48 hour watching period was over. This also meant no late fees. You simply tossed the disc into the garbage can. This idea was to hit Blockbuster where it hurt. Blockbuster was the king of late fees at the time. A few months after introduction of this idea, Circuit City stores set up recycle containers to entice users to recycle used DIVX discs at Circuit City stores instead of throwing them into the trash. Not sure how well that worked.

Licensing Issues and Retailers

As a result of Circuit City’s involvement with DIVX (along with a legal team), for other retailers to sell DIVX compatible players required paying a licensing fee to Circuit City. As a result of the licensing fees, Best Buy and other retailers shunned the players choosing to avoid paying those fees. It’s no wonder, either. Why would you ever agree to pay another retailer money just to sell one of their products? You wouldn’t. This was a completely foreseeable miscalculation by the Circuit City management team.

This meant that Circuit City and other stores owned by Circuit City ended up the sole sellers of these players (and the DIVX format). Without wider support via other retailers, this format really had no hope of surviving. Circuit City should have dropped the idea for licensing fees quickly just to get better entrenchment for the format. It’s not like it wasn’t already costing Circuit City a mint to keep this format alive. Stupid is as stupid does.

Movie Studio Support

On the plus side for the format, because of what studios considered weak protection technologies associated with standard DVD (CSS), many studios jumped on board with the DIVX’s CSS + Triple DES protection standard. This boosted the initial ~20 titles when it arrived in summer of 1998 to well over 400 titles by early 1999. Some early studio adopters were 20th Century Fox, Disney and Dreamworks. Wikipedia says:

The initial trial of the DIVX format was run in the San Francisco and Richmond, California, areas starting on June 8, 1998. Initially only a single Zenith player was available, along with 19 titles. A nationwide rollout began three months later, on September 25, with players and 150 titles available in 190 stores. In total 87,000 players were sold during 1998, with 535,000 discs across 300 titles being sold.

The studios felt that the DIVX format offered a more solid encryption technique to protect their movie content. I’m sure they did. Due to the arcane structure needed to authorize the movie rental, it meant jumping through hoops just to get your movie to play. The movie studios love making consumers jump through hoops to play their content.

This quick studio adoption rate was a bone of contention because some studios began exclusively releasing their films onto the DIVX format instead of DVD. This issue caused further problems for the format and more consumer backlash erupted and threatened to fracture the industry into a new format war.

On the other hand, Sony and Warner Home Video, which at the time apparently comprised up to 40% of the movie rental market, refused to release their movies on DIVX. The primary reason for this refusal was that both of these companies had a stake in the success of standard DVD format. Supporting the DIVX standard would be a conflict of interest.

By spring of 1999, the number of titles had increased to over 410. Little did Circuit City or the consumers realize the end was near for DIVX. Due to mounting pressures and costs, Circuit City didn’t realize how much of an albatross that DIVX would become. There was just no way Circuit City could go this new format alone without wider industry investment and consumer acceptance.

Overconfidence

Circuit City’s biggest mistake was its heavily miscalculated financial ability to support this newly created format. After all, Circuit City is a retailer, not a tech innovator. Driving a new tech format through a retail company already has many hurdles and reputational issues to overcome. Circuit City was also too confident in its ability to entice other retailers to make this format succeed. Those retailers didn’t bite. Even in 1998 when this format came about, Internet RFCs were still a thing. Circuit City entirely avoided the RFC and Whitepaper approach that had become commonplace to announce new technologies. Instead, they launched this format without much fanfare hoping that the party train would show up. It didn’t.

Because of all of the above and including backlash from consumers and lack of retailer support, Circuit City way overestimated its ability to get this format adopted… and why would anyone want to adopt this format? With licensing fees, there was no incentive for non-affiliated retailers to adopt some other retailer’s idea as practical or realistic… especially when the standard DVD already provided a better rental and sales format.

Without the necessary support by consumers and other retailers alike, the format was doomed from the go. By the summer of 1999 (just 1 year after it launched), the format officially died on June 16th, 1999 (almost exactly year since it had launched). However, due to format commitments to existing consumers, it would limp this format along until 2001. Wikipedia writes of the DIVX demise:

The format was discontinued on June 16, 1999, because of the costs of introducing the format, as well as its very limited acceptance by the general public. It was shot down by Blockbuster Video stores not wanting to carry it. Also Circuit City announced a $114 million after-tax loss, and Variety estimated the total loss on the scheme was around $337 million. Over the next two years the DIVX system was phased out. Customers could still view all their DIVX discs and were given a $100 refund for every player that was purchased before June 16, 1999. All discs that were unsold at the end of the summer of 1999 were destroyed. The program officially cut off access to accounts on July 7, 2001.

Retail, DRM and Tech Innovation Don’t Mix

Due to the conflict of interest between the Circuit City chain, other retailers, licensing and this new format, there was ultimately no way this idea could survive. Circuit City made so many missteps along the way to adoption, the format was doomed from the outset. Even the management should have been able to foresee this event. If Circuit City had spun off the DIVX idea into a separate holding company that Circuit City had founded and enticed other retailers in (to avoid licensing requirements), the standard might have had a chance of surviving. While DRM was a relatively new thing in 1999, consumers could already begin to see how it could become a problem in the way they viewed content with DIVX (and other formats).

The Future of the Movies at Home

Even if DIVX had managed to make the slightest dent in the rental market (hint: it didn’t), the future of Internet streaming movies would have still seen to its demise. Even in 1997, a year before DIVX came to exist, Reed Hastings was in the process of setting up Netflix. By 2002, Redbox led the downfall of Blockbuster through it’s DVD rental kiosks. Some people blame Netflix on the death of Blockbuster, but it is firmly the self-service and low cost nature of the Redbox kiosk that ushered Blockbuster out the door. Yes, Netflix started Blockbuster’s problems, Redbox nailed Blockbuster’s doors shut. Blockbuster simply couldn’t compete with $1 DVD rentals at a time when Blockbuster was still charging sometimes $5 per disc. Netflix chose a per month plan fee with limits and was (and still is) charging well more than $1 per disc that Redbox adopted. In fact, Redbox is still the best deal going for both DVD and Blu-ray rentals, even though their prices have somewhat increased.

Getting back to DIVX, Netflix’s movie streaming, along side Redbox, Amazon, Hulu, Vudu, Crackle, YouTube, YouTube Red and others would have killed the DIVX DVD format anyway. Ultimately, DIVX didn’t have a place in the market or a problem to solve. It was already behind the times when it was introduced by a company that didn’t have the capital to invest in the longevity of such a format.

In short, Circuit City bit off well more than they could chew with DIVX. Today, these DIVX players are essentially worthless for playing DIVX format discs. Because the players could play standard DVD format discs also, this is their only redeeming point.  There’s no way to authorize the players or discs as the service has been dismantled. If you have any DIVX discs in your collection, they can no longer be played as there’s no way to authorize the players or discs.

Even today, DVD is so way behind the times when compared with UltraHD 4K, even that would have killed DIVX in short order. Ultimately, even if DIVX had managed to survive longer than 1 year on the market, it would have eventually died because of movie streaming services. There was just no way for DIVX to compete with that. However, it died long before that happened simply because of Circuit City.

Final Death of DIVX

The DIVX format supported limited viewings as well as unlimited viewings (DIVX Silver). Limited viewings of a disc were based on your rental period. Unlimited viewings cost more and was known as DIVX Silver. Why this is important is that the players still needed to dial home to verify the viewing of each play of the movie. After June 30, 2001, the DIVX service was shuttered including the dial home feature. For those who had purchased into DIVX Silver for some of their films, they could request a refund before the service was shuttered. This meant that any further viewings of DIVX movies after June 30, 2001 were impossible, rendering the DIVX format and the DIVX portion of the players useless.

The LA Times wrote of DVIX’s failure on June 17, 1999:

But the venture never connected with consumers and represented a major miscalculation of both the market and the video industry by the nation’s second-largest consumer electronics retailer.

The failure of Divx is an embarrassment for Richard Sharp, chief executive of Circuit City Stores. Sharp fought an uphill battle to promote the venture, which became a significant drag on Circuit City’s bottom line.

Sharp declined to comment Wednesday, but the market cheered the decision to junk Divx. Circuit City’s stock closed at $90.38, up $8.38 on the New York Stock Exchange.

 

A Cautionary Tale

This whole DIVX situation serves as a cautionary tale for early adopters of technology when produced by a company that’s never been in that business. This is particularly a problem considering the DIVX players required so much constant hand-holding with home base. If that home base connection were unavailable (i.e., Circuit City closed the service), the  movies would stop working, which is exactly what happened in the end. Why would you, as a consumer, want to buy into a media format that’s so heavily dependent on a third party’s continued success. The other problem is that the players chose to use a phone line instead of phoning home over the Internet. Of course, had the format lived, it would have been relatively trivial to introduce new players that supported Internet always-on capabilities.

The real cautionary tale here is that consumers should never early adopt into entertainment content that relies on phoning home to authorize each viewing. One could argue that Netflix is a form of this, but I’d argue it isn’t. When you use Netflix, the movie is either there or it isn’t. There’s no pulling-the-rug-out-from-under tactics. Meaning, you leave your media sitting for a few months only to find that it will no longer play. Standard DVD movies have never required authorization per play. However, Blu-ray technology has instituted a somewhat similar phone home approach, but so far this hasn’t been an issue. However, should Sony die or the servers cease to exist that enables a specific Blu-ray to function, we could find that Blu-rays become coasters at some point in the future like the DIVX media.

If you happen to own a DIVX player and any DIVX media, know that it’s dead and it’s not coming back. There is really no way to revive it. The decryption keys and the authorization service that allowed each movie to work have long been dismantled. As far as I know, there has never been anyone willing to reverse engineer this phone home service to allow old DIVX media to play. Though, why bother? The movies were mostly of inferior quality. Other than as a novelty of showing a functional DIVX movie off on a YouTube electronics history channel or possibly for nostalgia, there’s no other legitimate reasons to want to watch DIVX movies today.

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Don’t rent at Blockbuster Express Kiosks

Posted in business, fraud, scam, scams by commorancy on September 6, 2010

[Updated: 04/15/2017 — In 2012, Redbox purchased all of the remaining Blockbuster Express kiosks which have now become Redbox kiosks. The original article follows.]

I’ve rented at both Redbox and now Blockbuster. I’ve never had any difficulties renting or returning at Redbox. However, at Blockbuster I had the worst experience when returning my movie. Note, this was the first time I’d ever used Blockbuster’s machine. Note, Blockbuster’s machine sucks.

Poor Vending Machine Design

I’ll start by saying that DVD rentals via vending machine, not the best idea. Yes, that includes Redbox. The issue isn’t renting, it’s returning. If you rent at a store, returning the DVD is actually simple… drop it off in the bin. At a vending kiosk, you’re have to wait to turn in the movie because you have to use the screen to initiate the return function. This means, you have to stand in line and wait until everyone else is done. Stupid.

These machines are monstrous, yet they can’t even provide a proper return mechanism. My experience with Blockbuster returning a rented DVD was horrible. I stood in line 20 minutes waiting to return my movie (singular). After all that, the time was a couple minutes past 9 and Blockbuster still charged the extra $1 fee. Seriously, there is no grace period at all?

The worst part is, however, that when I called customer service, they refused to refund the money. They offered a promo code instead. Hello, no, I want a refund, not a promo code. After the debacle that is the returns process, I don’t intend to rent from their shoddy vending machine ever again. I’d already made that decision right after they charged me the extra day’s fee. This is why I didn’t want a promo code. The bad customer service experience was just the topper that capped it all.

Return Mechanism

These hulking machines are huge. There should be no reason why there isn’t a simple return and go slot (i.e., no waiting). It’s completely ludicrous that you need to wait for someone else to finish their long transaction before you can return a movie. It seriously needs a drop and go slot. A slot that always accepts returns no matter what someone may be doing on the rental side. Their computer already knows that that specific movie copy is tied to my account. There is no reason to have to initiate anything. An always-active returns slot is a no-brainer. Yet, these kiosks don’t have one. Neither does Redbox. However, there are far more Redbox kiosks around. If one is that occupied, I could just drive to another. Unfortunately, with the Blockbuster kiosks, you had to return your discs to the one where you rented. You couldn’t return at just any kiosk even if you did know where another one was.

In this case, the kiosk should shutdown all new purchases for 20 minutes prior to 9PM to allow for express returns. This would put the system into return only mode and allow those only needing to return to push their way through before the 9PM deadline. This prevents those people who want to spend 15-20 minutes hogging the kiosk reading every movie synopsis and hemming and hawing over ever title in the unit from doing immediately before return time.

Blockbuster go boom

It’s no wonder Blockbuster’s kiosks are now a thing of the past. They really had no idea of customer service or how to operate such a rental service to the public. I’ll stick with Redbox, thank you very much. I’ve had no issues with customer service or returns at Redbox. Yet, on my very first call to Blockbuster customer service (I waited on hold for at least 10 minutes), they were unwilling to even do what I requested (refund the extra day fee that they don’t rightly deserve).

So, I called the bank and the bank reversed the charges. Too bad Blockbuster.

Here’s your word of warning. If you want to rent from Blockbuster’s kiosk, you may experience something very similar with returns. Not only is customer service an atrocious process, they won’t even issue refunds when appropriate. Worse, if you go even 1 minute past 9PM when returning, they will stick you for that extra day’s fee (no grace period). I have no respect for Blockbuster and I do not intend to rent anything further from either their stupid kiosk or any store they own.

While these rentals are cheap enough, it’s not worth the hassle when you want to get a refund for ill gotten charges. Believe me, Blockbuster needs to shutter the doors and go away. Let’s hope Redbox makes that happen (and they did) and oh, Blockbuster, you should really take a look at Redbox to see what customer service really is, m’kay?

[03/15/2017 Comment: This article was written before the Blockbuster kiosks were bought out by Redbox in 2012. Thankfully, these Blockbuster kiosks no longer exist. They have all been replaced by Redbox kiosks which are much more abundant and easy to locate and use… thanks to the Redbox app. I leave this article up as a history of how Blockbuster kiosks functioned and as a testament to how bad Blockbuster’s customer service was at the time.]

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