December 22, 2014

Media Spotlight: DVD Circ Holds Steady, For Now

Even as streaming grows, many factors have helped libraries maintain DVD circulation. Will it last?


Like VHS recorders before them, DVD and Blu-ray players will eventually vanish from U.S. households, as people transition toward options such as cloud storage for content that they own and streaming services for content they want to rent. And, like every media format transition before, this shift is posing challenges for libraries as they attempt to serve their existing patrons, plan for the future, and maintain circulation figures on limited collections budgets.

Twenty-seven percent of respondents to LJ’s July 2012 edition of Patron Profiles said that borrowing from their library is their “primary source” of movies. More than a quarter isn’t bad, especially considering that the library beat borrowing from family or friends, purchasing from a store, watching on premium cable channels (such as HBO or Showtime), streaming, and delivery-by-mail services (such as Netflix), as primary sources for movies.

But 27 percent also represents a sharp decline from the 36 percent of patrons who said the same in the first Patrons Profiles survey a year ago. By contrast, over 17 percent of respondents said that streaming services, such as those offered by Netflix and Amazon, were now their primary source of movies, up from three percent a year ago.

At the Lawrence Library in Pepperell, MA, Director Debra Spratt says that “we haven’t felt an impact yet” on DVD circulation but that the long-term trend is a real point of concern.

Part of the problem, Spratt explains, is that Massachusetts doesn’t allow libraries to use patron views of subscription databases or patron downloads from services like Freegal for music—or, presumably, patron views of movies on a future streaming service—as a portion of total circulation figures in their Annual Report Information Surveys (ARIS).

The logic, she says, is that the library’s licensed content has not been acquired for circulation. If a contract is canceled, the content is no longer available to patrons.

For example, Freegal offers downloads that patrons keep, so the content does not circulate. The service has proven popular with patrons, but it cost the Lawrence Library “a chunk of [CD] circulation that I think could have been important,” Spratt says. Demand for streaming will grow during the next several years, but a streaming movie service could have a similar impact on the library’s DVD circulation.

Maintaining circulation

Still, DVD collections are a major factor in many libraries’ total circulation figures. Dollar for dollar, DVDs are the highest circulating category of items in the New York Public Library (NYPL) system, according to NYPL director of strategy Micah May, and such circulation figures have a strong historical association with the value that libraries offer the communities they serve. Demonstrating that value is increasingly a necessary element in a library’s budget negotiations with political leaders.

“The challenge is to move away from the circulation model or add to it,” May says. “If circulation is in danger, what else are libraries going to do?”

During last fiscal year, DVDs accounted for about 24 percent of total circulation at the Waterloo and Cedar Falls Public Libraries in Iowa, Director Sheryl McGovern told LJ.

“The circ on our DVDs is skyrocketing. It just keeps going up,” McGovern says. “But, I’m looking at our downloadable books, and that is also skyrocketing. As it gets easier to download material—whatever it is, movies, music, books—people will go that route…. It’s just inevitable that downloadable video will be someone’s preference over going to the library and getting a DVD.”

Although she adds that commercial streaming services so far do not pose an immediate threat to circulation, if the community’s adoption of ebooks offers any precedent, the future transition could be a rapid one for their patrons.

At the St. Joseph County Public Library (SJCPL), IN, manager of collection development and acquisitions Dawn ­Matthews says that trends on the commercial side of the DVD sale and rental business are already being reflected at SJCPL, where DVDs have accounted for 15.7 percent of total circulation since January 2012.

“In the private sector, DVD sales have been steadily decreasing, and we’ve seen similar [trends] reflected in our circulation, as people go online to get movies,” she says. Noting that media distributor Midwest Tape would soon be offering a movie streaming platform for libraries called Hoopla and that OverDrive was now offering streaming audiobooks, Matthews adds “that’s just the direction we’re moving toward.”

During the first half of the year, commercial movie rentals of DVDs and Blu-ray discs from kiosks, Netflix Movies by Mail, brick-and-mortar video stores and other retailers declined ten percent, according to the latest “VideoWatch VOD” report released in August by the NPD Group, a market research company. While physical discs remain the dominant format for commercial movie rentals, accounting for 62 percent of all orders, they “are becoming less so; in fact, year-over-year disc rentals from all sources declined by 17 percent, as digital movie rentals increased by five percent,” a summary of the report notes.

Monopoly by default

“The circulation numbers that I’ve seen with our accounts, and our sales indicate that it’s still a growth area,” says Jeff Jankowski, vice president of Midwest Tape, adding that he believes DVDs still offer a predictably good return on investment for libraries in terms of circulation.

“In some metropolitan libraries, DVDs range anywhere from ten to 20 percent of holdings, and they account for 40 to 50 percent of circulation,” says Jankowski. “It’s a really significant area for them to create value for their patrons, and I think it will continue to be.” Many libraries have spent years building and curating large collections of DVDs, he says. These collections represent a significant investment, and, now, it could offer renewed opportunity, since these collections no longer compete with rental stores in many areas.

Following an early August news story regarding the Patron Profiles findings on media preferences, several librarians posted online comments about DVD circulation, and their experiences seem to corroborate Jankowski’s comment: a well-curated collection targeting the local community will keep circulation steady or growing.

“Our library is also seeing soaring circ in CDs and DVDs. But we spend time making sure we have the popular movies, the award winners, the genres that our patrons prefer, classic and popular TV series, and we make the collections easier to browse,” one poster wrote.

Another noted a common complaint among early adopters of streaming—a large percentage of the content available through these services is still second tier. So the library has made it a priority to acquire mainstream and arthouse films that are not available through streaming services.

Another wrote that “in addition to the movie best sellers, I purchase a lot of things that are more obscure or specialized. For example, we have a small Indian population that uses the library a lot. As a result, I started ordering more Bollywood movies with English subtitles (not dubbed). Most of the movies aren’t on Netflix and will never pop up in Walmart or Redbox. I get at least half of them on or near the day of release.”

With a significant edge over kiosks in terms of selection and a dwindling number of brick-and-mortar competitors, it would seem that libraries might even have an opportunity to press their advantage with the format. But as Jankowski notes, “Most libraries where I’ve seen the circulation statistics, I’m not sure how much more volume they could even handle. Most collections that I’ve seen get used very heavily.”

Where you watch

In a recent budget survey, LJ asked librarians how concerned they were about the impact of streaming on their media circulation numbers. While many respondents did say that they were concerned, very concerned, or somewhat concerned, most seemed to indicate through write-in comments that they viewed this as an emerging problem, not something that was currently having an impact on circulation figures.

Some cited patrons canceling subscriptions to Netflix, premium cable, or broadband services to save money. Many others said they served rural areas or neighborhoods where patrons did not have good access to broadband service, or did not have the money for a home broadband connection and equipment like wireless routers, game consoles, or tablet computers to stream content at home.

As another librarian pointed out, streaming is still primarily associated with desktop and laptop computers or portable devices, which has implications for different viewing situations.

“It’s one thing to download or stream something on your iPad or smartphone. It’s another thing if you’re a family watching a movie together. You don’t do that on a smartphone,” says Sarah Nagle, collections librarian for Carver County Library (CCL) in Chaska, MN.

Nagle adds that in a recent discussion, a youth services librarian at CCL had noted that DVDs are easier for children to use, and that physical discs can also be used on car trips and in areas where broadband isn’t accessible.

During a format transition, collection development librarians have to ask, “Who is using what technology and for what reason?” Nagle says.

Yet this transition also strikes Nagle as somewhat different from earlier shifts between physical formats, such as the shift from LPs to CDs or VHS to DVD.

“It always seemed that one technology took over,” she says. “But now, for a lot of reasons, it’s not a linear path, and not everyone is moving in stages to that [new format].”

For example, echoing some of the opinions expressed in the budget survey, Nagle says there seems to be a more sturdy generational divide between those who stream and those who don’t. Also, it’s not just rural areas that have spotty broadband access. Growing suburbs like those in Carver County also take time to build out infrastructure.

“If you don’t have cable access, you’re not going to be streaming,” Nagle says. “DVDs are going to be the format of choice, because you may not even have some television shows available.”

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Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Associate Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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