Blockbuster Video was the “go to” place for entertainment in the 1980’s and 90’s. With an extensive inventory for all ages, it was the best source for videos. At their peak, they had 9000 stores and were the market leader in both United States and had expanded to Europe. Their rise to prominence coincided with Baby Boomers having kids, who became known as the Millennial generation. We spent a lot of time at the video store, and in many ways it was a fun outing. In 2010, Blockbuster declared bankruptcy, and was purchased by a satellite service. The change in ownership didn’t work out, and in 2014 the last corporate Blockbuster location closed. What happened to this once dominant brand? Read on and I’ll share my theory about their exit from a once lucrative business.
To understand the demise of these stores, you have to understand the viewing habits of the the people with the purchasing power, the Boomer parents. We grew up when televisions were still a relatively new form of entertainment. There were three channels- ABC, CBS, and NBC. Black and white tvs were the first ones we watched, and when the color models came out it was a huge improvement. I remember staying up late one night and seeing the monologue on the Tonight Show- the curtain behind Johnny Carson was a blinding variety of colors. And the NBC peacock logo was dazzling. It was a revelation to see what the people and the sets actually looked like. Fun fact- the tv pictured above isn’t really as old as I wanted to post, but in the free photo library it was the best one I could find. It does have the memorable “rabbit ear” antennas, but the set itself is too new. This is what popped up when I did a search for “antique televisions”. Kind of funny.
Since there were so few channels, we all tended to watch the same shows- in the morning, Captain Kangaroo, with his sidekicks Mr. Green Jeans and Bunny Rabbit. After school, it was the Mickey Mouse Club. Genius marketing by Disney. It made Disneyland and mouse ear beanies very popular, and launched the careers of several of the Mouseketeers. Playing outside was the norm after that, but as you aged a few evening programs were available for viewing. Lots of silly shows (a talking horse, a genie in a bottle, a witch married to a mortal husband) and a heavy dose of outer space shows since we were trying to get to the moon before the Russians. Saturday mornings brought cartoons. The Jetsons was a favorite- the show was about a space age family that had a talking tv, a robot for a maid, and flying cars. Very futuristic, and many of those things actually came true. You planned your day around when the shows would be on because there wasn’t a way to record them. So our expectations for entertainment weren’t exactly full of variety, and we learned to wait for the shows to appear.
Blockbuster filled that void, and had a lot to offer- you could watch the videos when you wanted to, and the vcr that you played them on could also record tv shows. That was life changing, and it made weekend nights more fun for parents who might not have a babysitter, and for kids who could watch shows as many times as they liked. It was relatively inexpensive and you knew what the children were watching. What could possibly go wrong with this business model? Cable tv and the Internet certainly took a toll, and Netflix renting dvds in the mail was the final nail in the coffin. But I also think there is another less discussed reason for it. In two words, late fees.
I can’t be certain late fees were a factor in every city, but I am fairly certain that the Omaha locations nearest my home were funded in large part by the overdue fees my family incurred over the years. When you rented the video, it was only about $5.00. But it had to be returned in a short time or the fees started to accrue. This wouldn’t have been so bad if we had kept track of the videos, but that was not the case. I remember finding them in the most unlikely locations- in the back of kitchen cupboards, under folded clothes in the laundry room, under dirty clothes in the laundry room, in backpacks- nowhere near a tv or vcr. Hunting for them in the house was always an adventure because there were usually very messy teenage bedrooms that could best be described as “there appears to have been a struggle”. I drove a minivan in those days, and there were a lot of hidden videos there too. I never rode in the third row seats, but I eventually learned to add that to my video search list. Moving was a huge problem too- I only moved once in our heavy rental years, but there must have been several videos lost in that process. When they switched to dvds, the problem actually got worse because they were smaller and harder to find. And the fees could add up to more than the price if you had purchased the movie, defeating the entire purpose of the rental. Since they had the corner on the market, you could not plead for reduced fees when you finally found the movie and took it back. Being a naturally frugal person, I would occasionally ban rentals for awhile to save money. But that never lasted long and we were right back to paying way too much.
When I mentioned that Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy in 2010, that happens to coincide with the year my youngest child graduated from college. A coincidence? I think not. That truly was the end of an era in many ways, including paying for renting anything from Blockbuster, so they wouldn’t be getting any more late fees from me. And in the ultimate irony, when I was cleaning out a box of college things from that child I found a Blockbuster dvd. This was in about 2017, so the late fees would have been running for at least seven years. Even though she went to college out of state, the dvd was from the local store. Thank goodness they didn’t track down their past due accounts! They would have had to garnish my wages to cover that one.
So now we are in the age of streaming and entertainment on demand. I like the new approach, especially after getting a smart tv that integrates all of the features and makes it easy to access them. The only surprising thing in this new era is the inability to find shows that I like to watch- with hundreds of channels, you would think there would always be something interesting on. Somehow that’s not always the case. And if you want some nostalgia, there is one privately owned Blockbuster in Bend, Oregon, that advertises that it is the last one on earth. I wonder if they charge late fees?