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The War Heats Up

Dec 10th, 2007
The big rumor and format passions

The Big Warner Rumor

You’ll recall that in a previous column I reported a serious rumor making the rounds at the Blu-ray Festival; it was quickly denied.  Warner Home Video Vice President of High Definition Media Dan Silverberg was quoted as saying, “One thing that may be changing is our strategy.  When both formats launched and hardware prices were high, we made a decision to support both formats and let the consumer decide. But now that hardware pricing is affordable for both Blu-ray and HD DVD, it appears consumers no longer want to decide - so the notion of staying in two formats for the duration is something we are re-evaluating now that we are in the fourth quarter.”  He also noted that Blu-ray Disc sales have enjoyed a 2:1 advantage over HD DVD for the previous nine months.  That might lead one to believe that Warner is about to announce exclusively for Blu-ray, but when he was approached by one of our group, I was told that he denied any decision has been made, his comments were taken out of context, and Warner will continue to support both formats for the foreseeable future. 

But now the Web is abuzz over a recent article in the respected periodical BusinessWeek that suggests that Warner Home Video may be going Blu-ray Disc exclusive.  Lionsgate vice-chairman Michael Burns, whose studio is BD-exclusive, was quoted as saying, “The rumor is that Warner is coming aboard soon. That will make it awfully tough for HD DVD to stay in this game.”  BusinessWeek would tend to agree; it points out that with Warner’s and New Line Cinema’s catalogs going BD-exclusive, the Blu-ray camp will have captured 70% of the market, even with Paramount’s and DreamWork’s defection.

With billions of dollars at stake, Warner is being courted by both sides.  It’s reported that Toshiba's head of HD DVD business, Yoshihide Fujii, has travelled from Japan to the States three times.  And the magazine reports that Sony CEO Howard Stringer has been in discussions with Time Warner Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Richard Parsons and Time Warner President and Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Bewkes.  So it’s possible that Warner’s Dan Silverberg original rumor-provoking comments hinted at discussions apparently ongoing since the summer.

As previously reported, Warner put its dual format disc solution on hold indefinitely, another possible indicator of behind the scenes negotiations.  As for a decision, it’s possible that Warner will be influenced by its own sales statistics.  Since 300 was released, twice as many BDs of that title were purchased than HD DVDs.  It’s possible that Warner might be influenced by another basketful of HD DVD cash.  Or this whole story could be a groundless rumor.  CES is less than a month away.  Perhaps the biggest consumer electronics exposition of the year will be the venue for the format war’s pivotal moment.

You may read BusinessWeek's full text by clicking on the article’s title: Next-Gen DVDs: Advantage, Sony.

Director Michael Bay Speaks Out

When Paramount went HD DVD-exclusive, Michael Bay was miffed.  He objected very publicly, even suggesting that he might not return for Transformers 2, but within a day become a bit more conciliatory.  Regardless, he continues to make clear his preference for Blu-ray Disc on his official website.

In one thread, he wrote, “Does anyone out here want to challenge what I feel suits my films better in terms of look. I see every frame of my films over a hundred times before it is ever released. I know the lighting conditions I shot it and the result on the DI. I know the range. I know what the final product should look like - Blu Ray suits my films better.”  But ever the practical businessman, he continues, “But that said - I don't a care about this format war because I have both formats in my screening room - I'm just filling you in on what people deep in the film industry feel ultimately is going on - Transformers looks great even in DVD!!”

His expressed lack of caring about the format war would seem to contradict another of his statements critical of the destructive competition, “It's short-sighted and it has delayed consumers' moving to HD [on disc]. As a director, my critical eye is that Blu-ray is where my money is.”

In another thread, he expresses more strongly the suspicions that have troubled me and that I’ve expressed in my columns.  In this thread, he wrote, “What you don't understand is corporate politics. Microsoft wants both formats to fail so they can be heroes and make the world move to digital downloads. That is the dirty secret no one is talking about. That is why Microsoft is handing out $100 million dollar checks to studios just embrace the HD DVD and not the leading, and superior Blu Ray. They want confusion in the market until they perfect the digital downloads. Time will tell and you will see the truth.”

Perhaps he has inside information, but I was under the impression that the $150 million that reportedly changed hands to persuade Paramount and DreamWorks (sans Spielberg films) to go HD DVD-exclusive was from a consortium of HD DVD backers rather than a single company.  That isn’t to suggest Microsoft hadn’t made a substantial contribution to the incentives.

Disingenuous HD DVD Website

Like all free sites, we rely on advertising revenue to pay the bills.  As you’ve undoubtedly noticed, our corporate people sell ad space for all kinds of things from the highly germane to the highly random.  Among them are Google ads that offer products and services that are related to the mission of this site; the ads are culled from many thousands through the power Google’s search algorithms.  Alas, there is no one policing the ads for legitimacy, so occasionally you’ll notice some that are very inappropriate or downright illegal.  For example, software to make illegal copies of discs, or illegal copies of films that have not been released officially.  Sometimes I’ll spot them.  Sometimes a kind reader will write to report one.  We’ll then filter the ad to deny publication.  Rest assured that if one slips through – illegal services and products will change web addresses to avoid filters – we’ll try to remove it as soon as we become aware of it.  Feel free to bring any to my attention. 

But I digress.  During one such quick visual check, I spotted an ad for an HD DVD petition website and I clicked through to check it out.  The nature of the site is to persuade visitors to pressure BD-exclusive studios to issue their content on the HD DVD format. There is a solicitation for signatures on a related petition.  To motivate potential signatories, the site would have readers believe that HD DVD is superior to Blu-ray Disc, but it attempts to persuade with a deceitful and devious tactic.  Some of my high definition disc reviews and others written by fellow reviewers and editors around the Web are generously quoted in two sections: one for HD DVD and one for Blu-ray Disc.  But the site handpicked best comments about HD DVDs and worst comments about BDs.  This dishonest tactic of comparing the best with the worst naturally would lead unknowledgeable readers to the inevitable and erroneous conclusion that HD DVD’s presentation is better than BD’s.

In my column More Of What We've Learned So Far of October 19th, I compared all HD DVDs with all BDs and I compared the best HD DVDs with the best BDs.  My unavoidable conclusion is that BD provides a better presentation than HD DVD.  And I again suggested that BD’s higher bit rate, made possible by its greater storage capacity, was responsible. 

If you’ve already bought into only one format, I know you’ll likely be an ardent supporter of your choice.  Regardless of the format you support, if you’re enjoying the pleasures of film in high definition in your homes, I applaud your embracing the transition to HD.  But if you are contemplating an HD disc player purchase for the holidays, please don’t allow yourself to be misguided and deceived by misleading information like that found on the HD DVD petition website.

Addendum

I’ve been contacted by the people responsible for the HD DVD petition website and I’ve been assured that there has been no effort to deceive. I’m told that “reviews linked on the site are old from the launch of the format, as I do not have time to keep refreshing them.” So my language that the site is deceitful, devious, and dishonest might have been overly harsh. Apparently, the writers simply have not had the time to keep up with progress and are completely unaware of the current state of the technologies. But it certainly is a shame that its obsolete information misinforms the unknowledgeable. For example . . .

By not keeping up to date with reviews as better BD players were introduced, they published comments derived from viewings on a Samsung BD player with faulty firmware.

I disagree with some of the critical reviewers they quoted, but my positive BD review comments were never quoted. Ah, but that can be attributed to my waiting for the Sony BDP-S1 BD player to assure maximum quality before I started reviewing BDs. That Sony player was released after the selection of reviews they published, and they simply didn’t have the time to add more recent reviews.

They are apparently unaware of the very real trend across review sites that BD is earning higher ratings for video quality than HD DVD, as I demonstrated in my article, linked above.

Although the site’s home page was dated September 21, 2007 (when I last looked) and they seem to have found the time to update positive news in the New Commentary section, I guess it was too time consuming to update the review sections. 

It’s also a shame that they don’t keep up to date concerning other HD disc trends. For example, in their rationale for preferring HD DVD, they state, "At one-half the price of the 'other brand', HD DVD has been delivering the most consistent and best picture quality and players, and ownership experience." Allow me to save them the effort of time-consuming research. The player price ratio is running substantially less than 2:1. Amazon is offering a $270 1080p BD player; the least expensive 1080p HD DVD player is $250. To save any more money on an HD DVD player, one must drop back to 1080i HD DVD players at $169 and $199. And as I demonstrated with an analysis of reviews of both formats (and comments about my own experiences), BD provides better picture quality than HD DVD.

The site also isn’t keeping up with how reviewers perceive the two high definition CODECs. They state, "It is our opinion that the VC1 encoding normally used on HD DVD is currently more consistent than the encoding options most frequently seen on Bluray titles on sale (Mpeg2 and AVC)." Now that the advanced video CODEC tools are in place, MPEG-2 is rarely used, and as demonstrated in the article linked above, AVC is perceived as superior (requiring consistency) on either format.

They contune, "Most 50 Gig Bluray releases that are coming out now still have not demonstrated the class-leading picture quality of most HD DVD releases, according to reviewers." This is demonstrably not correct, as I showed in my linked article, and demonstrated as not correct at the recent High-Def 2.0 conference; Blu-ray Disc titles were awarded seven of the eleven awards by reviewers:

High Def Title of the Year: 300, Warner Home Video.
Best Live-Action Blu-ray: Casino Royale, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
Best Animated: Ratatouille, Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment.
Best Picture Quality: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment.
Best Long-Form Music Video: Dave Mathews & Tim Reynolds: Live at Radio City Music Hall, Sony BMG.
Best Catalog: Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
Best Collection/Multidisc Set: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

The HD DVD petition site doesn’t even spell Blu-ray correctly.

I know it takes time and effort to keep up to date, stay informed, and present accurate information. So I’ll give the HD DVD petition site the benefit of the doubt. They aren’t intentionally dishonest or deceitful or deceptive; they are only guilty of presenting out of date information that no longer represents the current state of high definition discs.

But my recommendation remains, if you are contemplating an HD disc player purchase for the holidays, please don’t allow yourself to be misguided by misinformation.

Parting Thoughts

I find it hopeful that prominent directors Like Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay are supporting Blu-ray Disc, each in his own unique way.  (I’m not aware of any director, prominent or otherwise, who has spoken out in support of HD DVD.)  BD player prices continue to drop.  The BD player profile should be complete and implemented in 2008; until then, player manufacturers will continue to play catch-up with one annoying firmware update after another to resolve BD-J compatibility issues.  I remain cautiously optimistic that quality will prevail. 

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