Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Format 'War': Observations and Predictions

At Costco this week, I saw the high definition DVD Format War epitomized. A Blu-Ray kiosk with a monitor playing dazzling images from popular films, with a jaw-dropping price of $279. Beside it was some HD-DVD promotional materials, without a monitor or even an HD-DVD player in sight, instead relying on that tired phrase "up to six times the resolution!" and the low price of $200. Before this night I was a full HD-DVD believer, convinced by its low price and simplified disc design that would result in lower-priced movies eventually. But when Blu-Ray gets to $279, that means their next player model will probably be below $200 not too soon, and by then the price advantage of HD-DVD goes out the window. I had never really considered Blu-Ray before, since I would never pay $500 or $400 for one, but at an affordable price you have to look at both formats equally. And in this increasingly common environment, with a gaping contrast in marketing presented to the consumer, I can't imagine HD-DVD winning over too many customers.

It's become a common sight at most electronic stores. Target sells movies on both formats, but only offers Blu-Ray players -- complete with a snazzy kiosk displaying Blade Runner and other knockouts. BestBuy sometimes sets up an HD-DVD monitor, but it's nowhere near the showmanship of the Sony-sponsored Blu-Ray kiosk. Although HD-DVD reportedly wrote DreamWorks a nice check for their exclusive backing, it looks like Sony's capital will keep them from ever "losing" in this format war.

But is it really a format war? I don't see it as one, mostly because of the third adversary in the fight: standard definition DVDs. Despite over a year of high-definition offerings, production and sales of DVDs are as strong as ever, with no slowdown in sight. Since high def players are compatible with S-DVDs, it ensures the standard discs will continue to be produced indefinitely. And since S-DVDs are very cheap compared to their better-looking counterparts, and will always feature a much larger selection, consumers will continue to buy them. Not a war, it will be more like a prolonged conflict -- like we've seen between video game systems over the past two decades. And like video game consoles, each side will have a few hot exclusive titles and there will be plenty available for both formats. The real die hards will have both kinds of players, but most people will be happy with one or the other -- still continuing to buy standard discs.

All of this is very good news for consumers, as both formats continue to hack away at their prices and offer attractive free-movie packages with purchase. HD-DVD comes with 300 and The Bourne Identity in the box, with five more available free through mail. Blu-Ray offers five by mail, with slightly better offerings. Wal-Mart even had a doorbuster PS3 sale on Black Friday where you could get 15 total free Blu-Ray movies. But there's also a lot of consumer confusion: when I told my wife about the attractive high def prices her reaction was "then would you get rid of your old DVDs?" I think this is a common thought, because when people hear "format war" they imagine CDs vs. cassette or BetaMax vs. VHS. That's why the term "format war" doesn't really apply to this situation, since there's already a viable alternative that's not going away any time soon. Even when analog broadcast signals are turned off in 2009, millions will continue to have analog televisions because they will be supported by all cable and satellite services, as well as the converter boxes. And to answer my wife's question, yes I would be keeping my "old" DVDs and continue to buy them: will I ever need a high def version of The Third Man? The Simpsons? Will Danger: Diabolik ever be released in high def? Doubtful.


Chris Stangl said...

I don't think this is a proper "war" either, when the parties are battling to see which is the temporary supplement to everyone's DVD collection, and one almost exclusively for studio-owned visual extravaganzas.

Both hi-def formats are pretty. They're not so remarkable as the difference between VHS and DVD. They're not so astonishing, either, as watching a letterboxed DVD and seeing it anamorphic on a widescreen monitor. I don't propose that's true for the tech-head, early adopter or home video perfectionist, but those are niche markets. Even if the difference were staggering - and I mean this as generously and uncynically as possible - most people don't care that much about image quality. And most middle-class consumers don't care or know, until they're told to, informed in simple terms, or the change is made easy for them. It's hard to convince people to pay a heap more for sorta-better DVDs, when the hardware looks basically the same, doesn't save storage space, requires one own a proper display, etc, etc.

Totally anecdotal evidence, but: How many friends and relatives have their 16:9 TVs set up wrong? Do they watch normal TV signals with the picture stretched into weird shapes? That's my experience at nearly every non-film-geek or techie house for the last few years. Why do they have these TVs? When it's time to buy new equipment, the impulse/logical move is to make the best upgrade possible, but not before or until. When the technology shifts from high-end niche product to the dominant format, that's when they picked 'em up, but they weren't "waiting" for this to happen. They didn't care. I get that; I'm not gonna spring for a redesigned iPod until the old one craps out on me. And THEN it's time to upgrade.

Because as a not-particularly-tech-savvy but movie-obsessed consumer, who's DVD budget is surpassed only by housing costs... I only kinda-sorta even want one. Same disinterest I felt in the first three years of DVD. I do not care one whit about the titles being released. And I waited until there was a ROCKY HORROR DVD, and Criterion released BRAZIL and then I couldn't take it anymore. I don't want to pay ANYthing for 300 or a BOURNE movie - I don't want them in my house at all. What matters to the cinephile, movie geek and film buff are: key classic/catalog studio titles (so RIO BRAVO?... that makes my ears perk up), second tier/genre studio titles (so 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH, I'm getting interested...), and an endless bonanza of cult, trash, weird, and sleazy stuff. Almost all my home viewing is golden-era Hollywood, monster movies, exploitation bottom-feeders, art cinema standards, avant-garde, and public domain hokum. That is: I need niche product. I need culty trash and snobby narrow-appeal titles. Those are things the studios won't get around to for years, and boutique labels aren't doing/can't do yet.

Though Starz (nee Anchor Bay) apparently knows that the path to a man's heart is through DAWN OF THE DEAD.

I accept that I will be buying DAWN OF THE DEAD every three weeks until the day I die.

Adam Ross said...

Good points, and not to mention the niches within niches -- how many people will really buy a new $400 receiver to enjoy the uncompressed "True Dolby" sound offered on HD? I think only true audiophiles will enjoy whatever advantages it offers, and is it worth a new receiver?

Your anecdotal evidence is painfully true, just yesterday I walked into a new bar with six 52'' LCDs on the wall: every one featuring an analog signal.

Erich Kuersten said...

Yeah man, my Xmas experience with the stretched images on the widescreens was quite disheartening. Later my brother and I watched IDIOCRACY and it seemed not like science fiction but science fact!