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HD DVD Strikes Back

Aug 31st, 2007
No, it’s not Star Wars on HD DVD

Having secured Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment’s commitment to support HD DVD exclusively, the HD DVD camp is pressing ahead aggressively.

Significant Player News

Toshiba always claimed that the tipping point would come when an HD disc player reached the $200 price level. Toshiba nearly achieved that street price with its bottom-end HD-A2. Amazon is now selling the unit for $226.88, which catapulted the player to top position on Amazon’s list of best selling electronics. Sony’s BDP-S300, by contrast, still hasn’t dropped below a street price of $411.

Potentially more troublesome to the Blu-ray Disc camp is the news that Canadian consumer electronics firm Venturer Electronics has announced that it will begin selling Chinese-manufactured HD DVD players for $199 in the fourth quarter. The model SHD7000 will be an entry level machine. The player will offer 1080i video output, Ethernet connectivity, support for Dolby TrueHD, compatibility with CDs, video up-conversion of DVDs, and HDCP-compliant HDMI.

This may be the often rumored inexpensive Chinese player or the first of several. I’d be concerned with software compatibility, service, firmware update availability, and glitches. Don’t forget what happened in the early days of DVD, when some players couldn’t deal with seamless branching. Regardless, it will be fascinating to watch if this inexpensive player makes all the difference Toshiba has projected.

A New HD DVD Website

Universal Studios Home Entertainment has launched a New HD DVD Website that is intended to be a comprehensive consumer-oriented source of information about all things HD DVD. You’ll find an HD DVD FAQ and helpful information about installation and operation. Perhaps most significant, the site will offer the Web-based supplementary content available to those who have their players connected to a high speed Internet port.

Paramount Fallout

With rumors and articles about the Paramount and DreamWorks decision published on the Web and in print (the reliable and venerable New York Times published an article citing a $150 million incentive), several interested parties have responded and reacted.

First and foremost, Microsoft has made a public statement that it did not provide a financial incentive to Paramount. Microsoft spokesman Kevin Collins was reported to have said, "Microsoft did not provide any financial incentives to Paramount / Dreamworks' recent decision to support HD-DVD. This type of ‘reporting’ amazes me and I challenge anyone to provide proof around these statements. They are unfounded and inaccurate." Conspiracy buffs are already suggesting that the denial is not complete; Microsoft didn’t deny making payments to any organization but Paramount and DreamWorks. Could Microsoft have contributed by passing the funds through Toshiba? Or could it have provided an incentive to Paramount’s parent company, Viacom?

Director Michael Bay had an interesting reaction. When he learned that Transformers, his summer hit, would not be released by Paramount on Blu-ray Disc, he exploded on his Web forum. In a post entitled Paramount pisses me off!, he wrote "No Transformers 2 for me!" A financial punishment for Paramount? He continued, "I want people to see my movies in the best formats possible. For them to deny people who have Blu-ray sucks!" He may also have had the 2:1 BD sales advantage in mind; I’m fairly confident he has a backend deal on disc sales.

But the politics and mutual back scratching of Hollywood prevailed. Later in the day, he had his original post replaced with, "Last night at dinner I was having dinner with three Blu-ray owners, they were pissed about no Transformers Blu-ray and I drank the Kool-Aid hook, line and sinker. So at 1:30 in the morning I posted -- nothing good ever comes out of early a.m. posts mind you -- I overreacted. I heard where Paramount is coming from and the future of HD and players that will be close to the $200 mark which is the magic number. I like what I heard. As a director, I'm all about people seeing films in the best quality possible, and I saw and heard first-hand people upset about a corporate decision. So today I saw 300 on HD, it rocks! So I think I might be back on to do Transformers 2!"

Paramount CTO Alan Bell was interviewed concerning the studio’s decision to support HD DVD exclusively. He cited: lower player prices; stable specifications; the overrated hype of BD’s higher capacity (which this writer finds disturbing); HDi’s compact code (that would certainly seem to be true); and interactivity as an equal or higher priority than the better presentation (another troubling stand). Bell realistically stated that, "At this moment in time, it's an indefinite commitment." Which leaves the door open should Blu-ray Disc triumph. But clearly, Paramount is no longer format agnostic and wants HD DVD to win, "We hope this will influence consumers' choices."

Research Firm Understanding & Solutions Not Deterred

The firm stands by its prediction that Blu-ray Disc will win the format war. Understanding & Solutions Director Jim Bottoms said, "The weight of industry support is still very much behind Blu-ray." He cited BD supporting studios as representing 58% of the market share. He continued, "We have gone on record before that BD format is most likely to succeed, and we don’t believe [the recent exclusivity decision] will change that outcome."

Understanding & Solutions did concede that Paramount and DreamWorks’ decision will prolong the war and its previous prediction of resolution by the first quarter of 2008 is no longer likely. He also cited consumer confusion as getting in the way of the transition to High definition and HD on disc.

Parting Thoughts

Readers wrote to object to my criticism in my previous column of the financial incentives that have been widely reported. They overwhelmingly suggested that Sony likely did the same. I replied that if I could find a reliable source of information that Sony had also paid incentives to BD-exclusive studios, I’d be pleased to complain about that as well. Such incentives are simply anti-competitive, no matter who pays them.

Other readers wrote to accuse me of bias toward Bu-ray Disc. Allow me to point out that I have two HD DVD players and only one BD player, so I have just as much to lose regardless of which format goes away. As for bias, I only report what I see with my own eyes. So if I suggest that the best BD looks better than the best HD DVD, it’s with no preconception or prejudice. It’s simply the evidence of experience with over two hundred HD discs roughly split between the two formats.

Which brings me to one correspondent that suggested that I expect readers to "bow down" to my home theater rig. This certainly isn’t the case. I’ve always believed that we have an obligation to review discs for you on the finest possible equipment. The logic is that if a disc looks good on a great home theater system, it will look good on any level of system. But if we reviewed discs on a system that was not as revealing, each mediocre disc’s flaws would not be obvious or perhaps visible, and we’d then be doing our readers with fine equipment a disservice.

The format war rages on and I’m becoming more concerned each day that by prolonging the battle, mainstream consumers will stay away. If HD on disc doesn’t become economically viable and the studios decide to abandon the technologies, it will be a very sad day for home theater.