Self-Inflicted Foot Wound

August 26, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

To use a common expression, the Hollywood machine is in the process of shooting itself in the foot. Or, to put it another way, they're killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

Not all that long ago, things looked so promising. DVD players were the hottest mass-produced consumer electronics device. People were turning their attention toward high definition big screen LCD and plasma TVs. What could be more obvious than to produce a kind of DVD that would take advantage of the increased resolution of these high def TVs? There was money for the taking - billions and billions of dollars. It was such a sure thing that nothing could mess it up.

Enter the Blu-Ray/HD-DVD format war, a.k.a. the "gun pointed at the foot."

Ah, but all was not lost. Slowly but surely, Blu-Ray was winning the war. It had the majority of studio support (only Universal was HD-DVD exclusive). It had the PS3. Blu-Ray titles were outselling HD-DVD titles by better than 2:1. One more holiday season and Blu-Ray might emerge from the trenches battered but victorious. Then, with Microsoft dollars falling around them like manna from heaven, Paramount flipped, dropping its "format-neutral" stance (producing discs for both Blu-Ray and HD-DVD) and going HD-DVD exclusive.


The ramifications of Paramount's decision have been well recounted elsewhere. This move does not increase the number of announced HD-DVD titles but it does decrease Blu-Ray's. Whether any of the new HD-DVD exclusive titles are of interest remains to be seen. Paramount owns Star Trek, but it will likely hold back on any high def Trek movies until late 2008 to coincide with the release of the eleventh feature film. Paramount also distributes the Indiana Jones features, but Steven Spielberg, an avowed Blu-Ray supporter, will not allow any of his movies to be released in HD-DVD.

Does the flip do much for HD-DVD player owners? Not really. Does it do anything for Blu-Ray player owners? It deprives them of a few Paramount/Dreamworks titles. Does it do anything for those on the outside looking in? Quite possibly - since many (like me) have now thrown up our hands in disgust. I would like nothing better than to have a nice, shiny high def DVD player sitting next to my new, shiny LCD TVs (when I get them later this year), but it's not going to happen while there's a format war going on.

The world of movie software is evolving at an amazing pace. The length of term in Paramount's exclusive contract is 18 months. So one can assume that the format war, to one degree or another, will last not only through the 2007 holiday season but the 2008 one as well. That spells death to the formats' mainstream hopes. High def DVDs will remain a niche market. Most average consumers will stay with their one-format standard DVDs rather than entering a playpen that looks confusing and messy from the outside.

The problem faced by high def DVD is that consumers won't wait for the format war to end. They'll bypass it for the Next Big Thing. That will likely be high def downloads. At this point, there are four impediments to making this an effective way of obtaining home video copies of movies, but all are being addressed.

First, download times. High def movies are big files - typically in the neighborhood of 20 GB. That's about six times a large as a good quality standard DVD movie, which could mean a download time of as much as 24 hours. Experts claim, however, that this will improve dramatically in the next few years. It's not out of the realm of possibility that in 2-5 years, a full high def movie could be downloaded in about two hours. This may sound like a long time but it isn't. Consider that you could put in a purchase order for three movies before going to bed and they would be waiting for you in the morning. Impulse buyers might also be able to stream the video so they could start watching a movie a few minutes after ordering it.

Second, copyright protection. This isn't an issue that concerns most consumers but it concerns the content providers greatly. They don't like the idea of high quality movies floating around that can be easily pirated. So, like it or not, some kind of copy protection scheme has to be put in place. It won't be foolproof - nothing ever is - but it will at least discourage the uneducated from making copies and passing them along to friends.

Third, storage. This is the easiest. Already, portable 1 TB hard drives are available. One of those could hold about 50 high def movies. Five years from now, there will be 20 TB external hard drives available for less than $400. One of those could hold 1000 high def movies. They could be racked and stacked. The same amount of storage space currently needed for 10 DVDs would be able to hold about 5000 movies on hard drives. Talk about space saving...

Finally, hardware. Right now, most people have not integrated computers into their video systems. Going forward, however, this is going to change. Computers or computer-like video controllers will run most home video systems, doing everything from recording TV programs, managing movie collections, and controlling playback with the single bush of a button. Turn on the computer and sit back on your sofa or in your recliner. With voice commands, you'll be able to specify what you want to watch, whether you need an alarm set at some point during the program to alert you of the time, and how you want the ambient lighting set. You'll probably still have to make the popcorn or snacks yourself, however.

Ultimately, there will be no room for high def DVDs. They, like their standard counterparts, will be dinosaurs, consigned to rummage sales like LPs, laserdiscs, and VHS tapes. Right now, it appears likely that the window will start closing before it ever opens. That's sad for those of us who like to progress in an orderly fashion from one format to the next. But it appears that corporate greed and stubbornness have spoiled this step in home entertainment evolution. It's time to start the high def DVD death watch. Because, other than killing it, there doesn't seem to be anything the involved parties can do.