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The War's A Mess

Sep 14th, 2007
Incentives, rogue formats, expanded standards

New BD Players Coming From Sony

Let’s start with the easy stuff. Sony has announced two new Blu-ray Disc players, the BDP-S2000ES, the first BD player in Sony's Elevated Standard (ES) line, and the BDP-S500. Each provides 1080p60 and 1080p24 output, and up to 7.1 channels of linear PCM, Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS-HD, and DTS High Resolution digital audio bit streams over HDMI 1.3. Sony hopes to entice buyers to also purchase its recently announced STR-DA5300ES and STR-DA4300ES AV receivers that have the ability to accept HDMI 1.3 digital audio signals and decode via advanced CODECs. The new players support AVCHD discs and support deep color. The players are also more versatile, offering compatibility with BD-R/RE (BDMV mode), DVD+R/+RW, DVD-R/-RW (Video Mode), CD, CD-R/RW (CD-DA format), MP3, and JPEG on DVD recordable media. In addition to an HDMI 1.3 digital audio output option, expect the usual optical and coaxial digital audio outputs, and internal audio decoding with 5.1 analog outputs. The units are respectively a tad more expensive than the existing BDP-S300 and BDP-S1; the BDP-S500 will carry an SRP of $700, and the BDP-S2000ES will list for about $1,300. They are due this fall.

There Is Another - Oh, Crap!

As if the HD disc format war didn’t have enough problems, now we have a new interloper trying to horn in on consumer uncertainty and lack of high definition knowledge. New Medium Enterprises has launched its HD VMD (Versatile Multilayer Disc) as an alternative to Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD. The red-laser system will have disc capacities of 15 and 30 GB on a single-sided disc, will output 1080p with a data transfer rate of 45 Mbps, will support MPEG-2, VC-1, and AVC video CODECs, will support Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, and DTS, will offer HDMI and Internet connectivity, and will up-convert SD DVDs. The player will have an SRP of $199.

It’s not clear that this will have any affect which format will win the battle, since there is no indication of studio support. And without the willingness of major motion picture studios to provide content, any format is doomed. The potential harm of this development is the further confusion of the average consumer, whose support is critical to the ultimate success of either BD or HD DVD.

HD DVD Gets A Third Layer

On August 31st, the DVD Forum announced its approval for production of a 51 GB single-sided triple-layer HD DVD disc, which bests 50 GB Blu-ray Discs by 2%. This will put to rest any concern over adversely affecting image quality due to the compression required to squeeze long films and their supplements onto a 30 GB disc. What it does not improve is HD DVD’s lower output bit rate, which also affects image quality (BD’s maximum video bit rate is 40 MB/sec; HD DVD’s maximum video bit rate is 29.4 Mb/sec). More serious is the unresolved question of whether or not any existing HD DVD player will be able to play the three layers, even with a firmware update.

Are More Incentives Being Offered?

In a previous column, I reported the widely held belief among industry insiders that the HD DVD camp paid an aggregate $150 million to Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Animation to secure their exclusive support for the format. It’s subsequently been reported that Toshiba spokesman Keisuke Ohmori refused to comment on the financial incentives; he would only say that the two picked HD DVD on its merits.

Now comes word that Warner Home Video has been approached by both camps to consider lucrative incentives for exclusivity. This suggests, as several of my readers wrote (but for which I can find no credible source of information), that Sony may have offered Buena Vista Home Entertainment an incentive for its exclusive support of Blu-ray Disc. A Disney spokesman declined comment when asked directly about that possibility. However, Fox seems to have gone BD for the extra layer of BD+ security. And, of course, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s BD exclusivity is simply support of its parent company.

However, in an interview with Warner Home Video president Ron Sanders published in TWICE magazine, he stated clear support for both formats, vowing to release all the Harry Potter films on both BD and HD DVD by the end of the year. Interestingly, he also noted that Warner’s TotalHD BD/HD DVD hybrid disc release plans are now on hold; we previously reported that it would premiere in early 2008 and that no longer seems to be the case.

Sanders did not rule out an exclusivity deal, "We’re talking to both sides and it’s crazy right now. We remain committed to both for the time being. We’ll see how the fourth quarter plays out. The consumer is still kind of divided, and we still believe that we should offer the content in both formats. Now, we will watch the marketplace very closely, and see how it plays out, but for now we are supporting both."

The balance is precariously even at the moment. Should Warner go red or blue, it would certainly have a substantial impact.

So How Are We Doing?

As of the week ending August 26th, the BD to HD DVD disc sales ratio was 68%:32%. But as of the week ending September 2nd, the ratio slipped to 56%:44%. The beginning of a trend or a short term aberration? I won’t speculate on such a small data set. I’d rather watch the formats’ sales performance in the critical fourth quarter.

Perhaps slightly more telling statistics are the results (as of a day or two ago) of an online survey being conducted by Sound & Vision magazine. The question is, "If you were buying a DVD player today, what type would you get?" A mere 4% chose a regular progressive-scan player. Only 18% chose an up-converting player. A more respectable 35% specified an HD DVD player. And Blu-ray Disc came out on top with 43%. This is based on 1479 respondents; there are likely more by now.
As I’ve written many times that it simply isn’t possible to call a winner. The behind-the-scenes posturing and deal making is too unpredictable. Buyer preferences are not being allowed to determine the winner in a competitive marketplace. The longer this war drags on, the greater the chances of consumer apathy. It’s making those early adopters who bought into one format or the other nervous; some are defensive. And we’ll suffer with glitches and incompatibility problems as both disc standards evolve.

I’m torn between the pleasures I’m greatly enjoying from two high definition formats that were rushed out the door due to a war for market dominance and my frustration over dealing with immature products. Sigh. I have to console myself with the prospect that by this time next year, the growing pains will be over.

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