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Home Media Expo

Jun 25th, 2008
The industry is even more excited about Blu-ray Disc than I am

What's HME?

Home theater veterans will remember the Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA) and its annual event during which new releases and new technology are announced, and much schmoozing occurs among studios, distributors, and retailers. VSDA has been supplanted by Electronic Merchants Association (EMA) and it sponsored the Home Media Expo taking place in Las Vegas from June 23rd through June 27th. The press is present, but the studios’ emphasis is on commerce. There are special events, like Warner’s June 23rd invitation-only event at which they announced upcoming titles and gave the press (including the Internet press) the chance to mingle with Warner executives to ask questions that might be of interest to you.

Unfortunately, Continental Airlines really let me down on Monday. My flight from the East Coast to Vegas was to have departed at 1:25 p.m. and would have landed in plenty of time to check in to my hotel and make the event. My flight went wheels up at precisely 7:03, about five and a half hours late. The Warner event was over even before the plane touched down. That event would have been the subject of my Day Zero report, but it was not to be. I’ve requested press releases and literature and I hope to have some news about those announcements for you soon.

The Opening Session

So, let’s move on to the first official day, and those events that just might be of some interest to you. The opening session featured a panel comprised of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment President Mike Dunn, Blockbuster CEO Jim Keyes, Forrester Research Principal Analyst James McQuivey, and Panasonic Vice President Blu-ray Disc Group Eisuke Tsuyuzaki. The moderator was Home Media Magazine Publisher Thomas K. Arnold and the session was introduced by EMA president Bo Anderson.

In his opening remarks, Anderson verbally celebrated the industry and placed great emphasis on BD’s huge growth potential. He emphatically refuted the pundits who’ve suggest that downloads will soon replace BD as a vector to replace physical media. He went through a list of top eighteen reasons for BD’s inevitable success. This was not a Letterman style top ten list; this was a dead serious, factual presentation of the reasons BD shall become the new de facto standard for home entertainment video delivery.

Among them were the accelerating sales of HD-resolution displays, thirteen million sold during the last two years alone. He cited over five million PS3s in the installed base (there will be 9.5 million PS3’s and 4.4 million dedicated BD players in the hands of consumers by the end of the year) and the accelerating rate of those owners buying BDs. For those that claimed that BD is a niche product, he noted that the BD player installed base exceeded laserdisc’s maximum installed base quite some time ago. He noted the value of digital copy, celebrated the victory of BD in the format war, and praised the now clear message to consumers that BD is the system of choice for the highest quality presentation. And he saved the last items on his top eighteen list for specific blockbuster titles that are expected to be available in the fourth quarter, among them Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, and The X-Files: I Want to Believe; the latter two haven’t even been released to theaters yet. The tone was very upbeat.

The panel revealed even more interesting information. One very notable outcome of a focus group held in Los Angeles was that every single consumer in the group didn’t hesitate to volunteer that each will definitely make the transition to Blu-ray Disc; it was only a matter of time. All prognostications show a substantial growth in BD and the ultimate replacement of DVD by BD. Dunn put up slide that shows the growth of BD players versus DVD players; after the second year in the life cycle of each format, there are 4.5 times more BD players in the installed base than there were DVD players. The sales on the software side are more than double. So don’t let anyone suggest that BD’s small market share (about 10% of total disc sales) is an indication of a format in trouble.

Blockbuster put a slide up to demonstrate a typical display area in the center of their stores; it’s consumed by a large BD display. Keyes stated that rental is exceeding sales in his stores, indicating to him that BD is a more popular rental format than a sales format. In the humble opinion of this writer, that’s a little disingenuous; Blockbuster charges SRP and no one in their right mind buys there. Rent? Sure. Buy? I don’t think so.

There was some considerable discussion about the differences between upconverting DVD players and BD players, a $300 versus and $80 decision in Wal-Mart. There was some consternation that DVD scaling players promise true 1080p, confusing consumers. They expressed a very pessimistic view that consumers as a whole will ever understand the advantages and nature of high definition; the technical details are seen as too complex despite a campaign of consumer education. What needs to be done, they said, is similar to Best Buy’s decision to sell only HD-ready displays; when BD players replace DVD players and the decision is taken out of consumers’ hands, the format will become the default player of choice. Interestingly enough, one pundit suggested that by holiday season 2009, BD players rather than DVD players will be what you find in stores. That’s pretty optimistic.

A great deal of time was spent on BD Live and demonstrations of the highly complex and rich experiences and supplements that are and will be made available. Panasonic stressed that BD Live capable players are only a version of BD, whereas I think you’d agree that it represents the logical progression of the evolution of the format. A Sony representative demonstrated the BD live experience on the recent Men in Black BD and revealed that all Sony titles going forward will be BD Live enabled. The nice part about this demo, something I hadn’t considered before, is that the features are not title or time dependent. For example, you’ll have access to a growing or evolving selection of trailers, both BD and theatrical. Even the user interface is going to evolve. Sony stated that 20% of Sony owners have connected to the BD Live network and 75% of those have downloading content. There are some pretty bizarre concepts being developed, like inserting yourself into a film scene.

Digital Copy

There were several seminars, but only a few of interest to the home theater enthusiast. We begin with a 20th Century Fox sponsored demonstration and Q&A with the theme of Digital Copy, a means to give consumers a convenient way of transferring content to computer or portable device; it’s expected to reduce piracy. Both Windows Media Player and Apple iPod versions were created before our eyes in a matter of moments. The point was made that this is a more reliable, less time-consuming, and higher quality version to put on your disk-based devices than web-based digital downloads. I can attest to the speed and convenience, and the resultant files looked surprisingly good on a large front projection system.

DNR

More important for me at the Fox demo was the opportunity to discuss the Internet buzz concerning the allegations that Fox applied excessive digital noise reduction (DNR) when it prepared Patton for release on Blu-ray Disc. I asked Senior Vice President of Corporate & Marketing Communications Steve Feldstein about this controversy that’s making the rounds of the forums. He immediately text-messaged the people responsible for the transfer and within minutes he was called. I’m told that the transfer was derived from highly revealing, low grain 70 mm source elements and that no grain removal was applied.

Mark reviewed the BD on his mid-forty-inch diagonal flat panel display and was impressed. But Steve suggested that I look at the disc on my 110-inch diagonal front projection system and judge for myself. As soon as I receive my copy, I’ll revisit this issue and offer my impressions. And if I perceive a softness that suppresses finely grained textures, I’ll continue my dialog and report back to you.

BD Live

I attended an extended demonstration of BD Internet-based supplements and interactivity sponsored by Sony. I was also very pleased to enjoy a presentation by and having a chance to ask questions of Senior Vice President, Asset Management, Film Restoration and Digital Mastering for Sony Pictures Entertainment, Grover Crisp. But since Panasonic is going to have a related demo on Wednesday, this discussion is going to have to wait until tomorrow, when I can combine the two.

Parting Thoughts, For Today

I’ve written before that Blu-ray Disc is the best thing to happen to home theater… ever. My interest in the format’s success is both altruistic (I’d like my readers to enjoy the best presentation technology can offer, even exceeding film quality in motion picture theaters) and selfish (I want to enjoy the best presentation technology can offer, especially if it exceeds film quality. I’m exceedingly pleased that studios and the entire physical media industry, admittedly motivated by potential profits, is so enthusiastic about the BD format and that all consumer indicators point to prolonged success. The moral of this story is that you, your friends, and your family need not be concerned about investing in the format. It’s going to be with us for quite some time.

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