DVD Rot: Fact Or Fiction?

Check those old DVDs and see if they still play

Inserting DVD
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In its heyday (1997 - 2009) DVD was celebrated by consumer electronics manufacturers, movie studios, and consumers as the best means of viewing video content. In a very brief time, displaced both laserdisc and VHS from store shelves. Entering its third decade, DVDs are still being sold, but with the advent of Blu-ray Disc, Ultra HD Blu-ray, and internet streaming, sales have been dwindling.

Appearances May Be Deceiving

Soon after DVD's introduction, a glitch appeared on some discs that put a damper on the format for some: DVD Rot.

What appears to be an indestructible 5-inch disc, is actually a delicate audio/video/data storage device that is held together by a laminated outer surface containing layers of plastic and reflective metal coatings, and held together by special glues.

If manufactured properly, placed and removed properly from its storage case when used, and stored properly by the consumer, DVDs can definitely outlive videotape.

DVD Quality Control Issues

Despite its outward appearance, a small percentage of DVDs can suffer deteriorating effects, such as cloudy areas (that look like coffee stains), holes, and specks that may show up after repeated plays.

Also, some multi-layered DVDs (DVDs with longer content) may experience layer separation or other defects that show up as skips or pixelation when the laser in the DVD player has to switch between the layers. Sometimes the DVD player will actually freeze at this point, preventing playback of the next layer. This may be attributed to lack of quality control at the factory where the DVDs are made.

Another quality control issue missed by some manufacturers is the type of center spindle used in DVD storage cases. While most spindles enable the easy release of the DVD, some spindles may be so stiff that they can tear the edges of the outer lamination of a DVD in such as way that dust and other particles can creep in and cause disc playability issues as time goes on.

Neither the consumer electronics industry or consumer advocacy groups have addressed this issue systematically. However, several reliable private parties in print and online media (refer to the list at the end of this article) took notice and have advocated action. However, the movie studios have responded in a mixed fashion. Some studios have replaced defective DVDs while others refused to replace defective DVDs past a normal warranty period.

Impact on Recordable DVDs

With home recordable DVD, no one has done an extensive evaluation of the dozens of brands of DVD-R/-RW/+R/+RW/RAM discs used. On the other hand, there haven't been any major reports of deterioration of these discs.

There are differences in disc construction quality by manufacturers - It is advisable to stick with a brand name that you are familiar with, such as Maxell, Memorex, Philips, TDK, and Verbatim.

Consumer DVD Care Issues

Possible deterioration of DVDs may not only be the fault of the disc manufacturers and studios. Many consumer care issues are also a factor. Just as with any video or data medium care in handling and storage by the user is very important for long life.

Leaving exposed discs lying around, especially in reach of children and pets, leaves an opportunity for the disc to be damaged. Also, storing the DVD in extreme temperatures or high humidity can warp a DVD or cause layer separation, such as leaving them lying around inside the car on a hot day.

Keep in mind that no audio/video storage medium is completely foolproof, despite claims to the contrary. Vinyl records can be scratched and warped, audio and video cassette tapes can be stretched, wrinkled, and even collect mildew. For those who still have laserdiscs, some of these discs were (and still are) susceptible to what is known as Laser Rot (List of known titles).

In this author's own experience, only one DVD has been encountered a 400+ DVD collection that had any defective symptoms and only two cases of lamination peeling due to a stiff package spindle has been found.

So far, no issues with recordable DVD media have been found in the author's collection, but since the number of recordable DVDs is a lot less than commercial DVDs cases of rot may not readily show up. Over the years, this author has had to toss out many more defective videotapes than defective Laserdiscs or DVDs.

The Bottom Line

It is a fact that there are cases where a DVD is unable to play properly, which can be the result of poor manufacturing control or how well they are handled and stored by users, but it is fiction to conclude that large numbers of disc titles are at risk either now or in the future.

To dig deeper into this issue, check out following additional articles:

Laserdiscs and DVDs aren't aren't the only disc formats that may suffer deterioration - check out how some Audio CDs and Blu-ray Discs may be affected.