In my post from earlier this week about the drawbacks of Blu-Ray, one of the points I tried to make was that all of the extras that Blu-Ray discs provide really amount to very little of interest to me and, I would guess, to most consumers — especially if they cause the total user experience of Blu-Ray discs to be slow and problematic (they do). Contrary to what the entertainment industry believes, most of us can easily live without all the deleted scenes, interviews, outtakes, trailers, and commercials disguised as documentaries — to say nothing of the uniformly dismissable interactive features and supplemental content that Blu-Ray makes accessible over the Internet.
What matters is the movie itself, the core content. If you don’t believe me, you can believe Netflix. Through their success they’ve inadvertently proven that the concept of “DVD extras” is hardly a necessary component of providing good entertainment. Their discs-by-mail service treats a two-disc movie release (one for the movie itself, one for the extras) as two different rentals, and so it’s probably safe to say that very few people go to the trouble of renting that second disc. And of course, their streaming service offers up no extras at all and has proven to be a big hit nevertheless.
In an age where entertainment journalism is so popular and when everyone is interested in the backstory of practically every movie, regardless of how good the movie itself is, it’s interesting to me that extras can be regarded as so inessential. But they really are, and user experience designers across all media would do well to keep that in mind. Cherries don’t sell sundaes.
All that said, I really do enjoy extras myself, even if I don’t miss them much when I don’t get access to them. Director’s commentaries, in particular, can be very revealing. When I can find the time to re-watch a movie with the commentary track (it doesn’t happen very often), it’s almost always a rewarding experience that deepens my appreciation for the original work.
So it occurs to me that, outside of its inherently beautiful high-definition picture, the one mildly useful thing that the Blu-Ray format could do for me would be to give me access to alternative commentaries. This is an idea that originated with the critic Roger Ebert several years ago: why limit the voices you can hear from to just those of the cast and crew? Why not open it up to anyone out there who has something to say?
Digital technology makes it cheap and feasible for anyone to record their own commentary track for any given movie, and there’s a robust community of film critics, writers and enthusiasts who have been doing just that. There are about 3,000 examples of their work catalogued over at Zarban’s House of Commentaries. There’s also a much less serious strain of the same idea available at RiffTrax, a project from the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew, where the goal is to produce comedic commentary tracks.
Blu-Ray to the Rescue
I’d be very keen to have access to this stuff, especially for the movies that I cherish the most and for which there are no commentary tracks available (or no good ones). But to listen to one of these tracks right now, it’s generally a manual process, with no easy way of uniting what are basically two different content sources. Two different media players are necessary, in fact — one for the movie and one for the track — both playing at the same time. Though getting what you’re hearing in sync with what you’re watching is not difficult, but it’s harder than it should be.
And this is what Blu-Ray would be so good at. Access to alternative commentaries would finally provide a legitimately interesting purpose for the otherwise useless BD Live aspect of the format, which can pull in supplemental content from the Internet. It would be elementary for a Blu-Ray player to automatically sync an alternative commentary track (really just an MP3 download) with the video that it’s displaying. What’s more, the player could also negotiate between the commentary’s audio and the movie’s audio, bringing the volume of the latter up when the former is silent, which is something that’s virtually impossible to do via manual means.
New Dimensions in Home Video
To me, this would make for a network feature that truly justifies all of the hassle that Blu-Ray players go through to connect to the Internet, even if this new content would still be unlikely to upend my theory that extras just don’t matter to consumers. People who don’t have the time or interest in a director’s commentary are unlikely to have the time or interest for commentary from some random film buff — or in the case of RiffTrax, some random wiseacre.
Or would they? Imagine a simple, user-friendly marketplace for commentaries where a Blu-Ray owner can find the commentators who match their sensibilities, and download tracks and start playing them with just a few clicks of a remote control. Imagine being able to engage in conversations with those commentators too, or send clips of their audio to your friends. Or even imagine a Blu-Ray player that makes it dead simple to record a commentary track yourself and to upload it to this hypothetical marketplace, letting you become that movie pundit you always knew you could be. These kinds of features could make for a fascinating new dimension for home video. In the fight against piracy, in the fight against declining sales of movies on discs in general, taking a more conversational approach like this could be one of the tools that might rejuvenate the business.
But this kind of thing seems very unlikely to happen with Blu-Ray. Certainly not soon, and probably not ever. And the reason is simple: Blu-Ray, as an invention of movie studios and technology companies, is a one-to-many medium, not a many-to-many medium. It’s a digital update on an old model where content producers ship a product and consumers buy the product, stop. Though it’s technologically possible to do what I’m talking about, because of the interests involved, the Blu-Ray format is constitutionally incapable of accommodating outside voices, unpredictable conversations and alternative commentaries. It’s a 20th Century paradigm dressed up with beautiful 1080p resolution. And that’s why it’ll be dead within a few years.