Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD? Who cares?
The studios are fighting over DVD formats, but consumers remain deaf to high-def
JAIME J. WEINMAN | September 24, 2007 |
Big media companies want to make your DVD collection obsolete. Now that sales of regular DVDs have reached a plateau, studios have started marketing high-definition DVDs and players as a way to make customers buy their favourite movies all over again. The hope is that this will revive the DVD boom of five years ago. The problem is that there were two high-def formats launched simultaneously, HD-DVD and Blu-Ray. And most consumers don't know or care about either one of them.
A high-definition DVD, as the term implies, has a clearer picture than a regular DVD(when viewed with a high-def player). It has more room than a standard DVD, so that one high-def disc could store more than one Oliver Stone cut of Alexander. Since high-def DVDs were released early last year, studios have waged a battle over which format will become the "standard," in a way that recalls the old VHS vs. Beta format war. But they're fighting for a piece of a relatively small market: the film 300 is the biggest high-def seller with 250,000 copies, which would be disappointing for a big movie on regular DVD.
Only a couple of weeks ago, Paramount made news by announcing that its high-def releases would all be in HD-DVD, created by Toshiba. That same day, Fox issued a press release pledging its allegiance to Sony's Blu-Ray, which costs more but has more storage space. Some people are passionate about the Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD battle; Michael Bay, director of Paramount's movie Transformers, was so furious about the cancellation of plans for a Blu-Ray disc of the film that he wrote on a website: "I want people to see my movies in the best formats possible. For them to deny people who have Blu-Ray sucks!" But the only ones who have that kind of passion for high-def are Hollywood insiders and home theatre enthusiasts -- the same people who couldn't keep the laser disc format alive.
It doesn't help that no one can really explain why either format should win out. Paramount and its sister company Dreamworks went to HD-DVD not because it was clearly better, but because it's supported by Dreamworks co-owner Bill Gates. And Bill Hunt, managing editor of the DVD news site Thedigitalbits.com, has been a strong proponent of Blu-Ray, but he admits that its only big advantage is that "70 per cent of Hollywood backs Blu-Ray," meaning there are more movies available on those discs. And there's not much to attract buyers either way: only a select few movies are available in either format, and few TV shows have been released in high-def(Prison Break will be Fox's first Blu-Ray TV release). In practice, most people are still buying regular DVDs while the studios fight it out over two unloved high-def formats.
Some analysts have argued that the format war could bring publicity, and therefore popularity, to high-def. But Clint DeBoer, editor for the online magazine Audioholics.com, wrote an article called "10 Reasons Why High Definition DVD Formats Have Already Failed," in which he argued that the existence of two imperfect formats makes it less likely that the public will take to either one of them. "The high definition DVD formats," DeBoer wrote, "are really just the same source material packaged in two different wrappers -- not to provide choice, mind you, but because the two camps simply are too greedy to combine forces, and not innovative enough to drive two truly separate products successfully."
Hunt is marginally more optimistic, saying that while high-def will never be as popular as regular DVD, there's still "the potential for it to catch on somewhat if one of these formats were to win in the next six to 12 months." But he worries that as the format war drags on, it discourages people from investing in high-def. "Most people who are aware of it are saying, 'You know, I'm going to wait until there's just one choice.' I think the sales numbers would be dramatically higher if it were not for this format war." And the confusion is going to get worse, not better. New Media Enterprises has just announced the North American launch of a third high-def format, VMD(Versatile Multilayer Disc).
Still, it's dangerous to assume that a format won't catch on; when DVD came along, there were people who thought consumers would keep their VHS tapes. And even as studios fight, they all agree on one thing: they want you to throw away your old DVDs and buy a new player and new discs. Format war or no format war, these companies eventually find a new way to take your money.