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We've Seen This Movie Before

From the way the media is playing up Blockbuster's new late-fees policy, you would think taxes were being eliminated. Instead, the hoopla is over those annoying $3 to $6.99 fees for returning a movie or game late. Dozens of papers ran headlines and stories today suggesting that the fees have been scrapped altogether. Which is kinda, sorta, almost true. As in any good movie, or well-crafted marketing campaign, though, there's a twist.

Make that a catch. Starting Jan. 1, if you return a movie a week after it's due, Blockbuster will automatically charge you the price of the video or DVD. This can run as much as $20. If you return it within 30 days, Blockbuster erases that charge and imposes a $1.25 "restocking fee." Since it goes by a different name, Blockbuster can trumpet "the end of late fees" (see the full-page ad in today's New York Times - A21 in my edition). No wonder the announcement generates more publicity than Jim Carrey's new movie. It sounds more dramatic than, say, "Blockbuster offers new grace period."

The real drama here, of course, is what this says about Blockbuster's future. It could very well be the latest sign that the longtime video-store giant can't compete with Netflix, Wal-Mart, and, coming soon, Amazon.

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