While DVDs and their players are still selling robustly at all levels of retail, the industry is already buzzing about what comes next in a never-ending format evolution. There are two camps driving the debate, and only one point of agreement unites them: Consumers are starting to invest in high-definition tvs at a good clip, and standard dvd players and disks aren’t currently up to delivering HD content.
So who are the two contenders? In one corner there’s the Blu-ray Disc Association. Led by consumer electronics giant sony, and supported by the likes of Dell, HP, Hitachi, Mitsubishi and Panasonic, the association touts proprietary Blu-ray hd technology as the clear next-gen choice. Blu-ray’s key point of difference is that at 50GB, its disks have six times the storage capacity of standard DVDs, which means they can easily accommodate HD content.
By comparison, Toshiba’s HD-DVD format comes up a little short at 30GB. But Toshiba argues that because it builds on existing tech, HD-DVD should be easier and cheaper to produce.
When players supporting both formats hit North American retail shelves in the forth quarter of 2005 (at prices in the US$600 to $1,000 range), they’ll transform the home entertainment experience – it’s like DVD on steroids. Beyond the jump in quality, both formats will be backward compatible with existing media, and the Blu-ray models from sony and Panasonic will feature recording capabilities from the get-go. Also, HD-DVD and Blu-ray will have enhanced content encryption systems that change the key for the digital code every few minutes of video play, making it much more difficult to pirate disks.
Increased interactivity is another big plus. HD-DVDs and Blu-ray disks have enough room to house an hd movie with tons of room left over for games and other bonus materials. Blu-ray Disc Association MD (and director of professional a/v at Panasonic) Richard Doherty also says Blu-ray wants to erase the line between TV and computer. For example, Blu-ray companies have produced disks that give users the option of replacing subtitles by hooking up to the Internet.
The first port of call on the content side for both HD camps was Hollywood, as movies churned out by the major studios drive the majority of DVD sales in the $25-billion home video market and are fuelling the home theater trend. And, for a time, it looked like the Blu-ray side had successfully wooed the studios. sony was poised to regain the home video ground (not to mention the lucrative technology patent licensing fees) lost after its Beta format fell victim to VHS in the ’80s. However, Hollywood big guns Paramount, Universal and Warner Bros. (and sister company New Line Cinema) delivered a major blow to Blu-ray in late November, 2004. The studios put their weight and collective home video market share of roughly 41%, not to mention their more than 50% market share of filmed content, behind Toshiba’s HD-DVD format.
Sony Pictures/Columbia TriStar, and by proxy mgm (which SONY purchased last year), are marching ahead with plans to produce Blu-ray disks for Q4, 2005. In early December, citing what it believes is Blu-ray’s superior technology and manufacturer base, Disney/Buena Vista threw its support – as well as its 18% market share – behind the camp. Fox is the only studio biggie yet to declare its allegiance.
There’s a real danger that the format war will confuse consumers, split the nascent market and, perhaps, sink the technologies before either has a chance to take hold.
‘Having two more formats [in addition to standard SONY] is destructive,’ says Glenn Ross, president of Lions Gate Family Home Entertainment. Publishing single titles in three formats, he says, will take up already precious retail space and distributors will have to spend a lot more cash on duplication costs, shipping and maintaining the inventory for multiple formats. But then, few wars are without casualties.
A version of this story appeared in KidScreen.