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Cheaper, faster and better wins

"You've never seen 'Curb Your Enthusiasm?!' "

My houseguest was incredulous that I had completely missed the HBO comedy.

Because she was adamant that I watch it immediately, I checked Netflix to see if it was available for instant viewing. It wasn't. "The Karate Kid" was, but she wasn't budging. So we decided to do something neither of us had done in years -- we got into the car and headed to Blockbuster.

There was a time when my friends and I would hit the movie and game rental chain at least once a week. But then media formats switched from video to DVD and digital. Rental companies saw the potential, entered the market, and showed us all what we had been missing. That's when competition heated up and the war began.

First came the much cheaper Netflix, which let us order DVDs through the mail at a flat rate, keep them for as long as we wanted and never pay late fees. Blockbuster jumped on the bandwagon, offering rentals through the mail, too, with the added convenience of making in-store exchanges.

Then Netflix offered instant viewing at no additional charge, allowing members to stream movies online or straight to their televisions.

Along came Redbox, the little kiosk offering new releases for $1 each and no late fees. Smaller selection, yes, but super cheap and convenient. Now there's Hulu.com, too, and any number of ways to get your flick fix quickly.

Blockbuster, outflanked, recently announced it will close as many as 960 stores, replacing them with Redbox-like rental kiosks and smaller outlet shops.

The irony, of course, is that by closing its huge stores, Blockbuster is eliminating its last competitive edge -- or at least the last reason I would consider giving it my business. The big stores must cost a fortune to run, but giving consumers the chance to browse and bring home last-minute choices was the best thing it had going for it.

Even so, on my last trip to the big blue and yellow, it didn't come through. Bursting through the door, we searched for the coveted "Curb," but it was nowhere to be found.

The point here is that, whether or not the once behemoth Blockbuster falls, the winner of this fight has already been declared. It's us, of course, the consumers.

We're a fickle and demanding bunch. Just as we helped Blockbuster ascend to greatness, we helped dethrone it. Blockbuster -- which has been losing money even while Netflix rakes it in -- appears to be mortally wounded.

Still, Netflix isn't resting in the corner. It experienced a brief outage last month, and instead of waiting for customers to complain, it immediately credited their accounts with a small courtesy refund -- even though most of them had no idea they had been inconvenienced.

Perhaps, as the Cobra Kai learned in "The Karate Kid," Netflix realizes there is always someone else waiting to take your spot at No. 1. And we're always on the lookout for the next scrappy contender.

e-mail: schristmann@buffnews.com

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