The late fee that brought down an empire

Techcrunch has a snarky piece on the slow, agonizing death spiral of Blockbuster Video, a demise that precisely no one who has ever rented a video from that soul-sucking borg will mourn. One would have to search high and low for another story of failure this full of incompetence, farce, and hubris. But in the end, the chain’s inevitable decline can be traced back to two crucial events:

1997: Reed Hastings returns Apollo 13 to Blockbuster six weeks overdue, and is dismayed by the $40 late fee.
1998: Reed Hastings founds Netflix.

I actually stuck with Blockbuster longer than most, mainly because once they’d put my beloved local indie video store out of business they were one of the few places left to rent videos. I even signed up for their DVD-by-mail program, which they introduced an astounding six years after Netflix launched. Then for a while we had both memberships because you could still go into the store for that rare emergency rental when you just had to see Blade Runner right away. Also, we had an ancient DVD player and an even older TV — we couldn’t have streamed movies if we’d wanted. In other words, we constituted Blockbuster’s primary demographic: unmotivated Luddites too lazy to upgrade. Not perhaps the foundation upon which to build a thriving business. But finally, about six months ago, after our television literally could no longer receive some channels’ signals, even we caved and bought an HD flat screen and a Blu-Ray player, which made the switch to Netflix Instant inevitable. Seven seasons of Buffy and five seasons of Angel later, my kids don’t know how they ever lived without it.

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