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Sony’s Marty, BDA’s Parsons Talk Blu-ray

12 Jun, 2012 By: Chris Tribbey

It’s been six years since the first Blu-ray Disc players shipped, and Andy Parsons, SVP of corporate communications for Pioneer Electronics and chair of the Blu-ray Disc Association's (BDA) promotion committee in the United States, remembers how simple — and expensive — they were.

“They played discs. Very simple and very straightforward,” he said June 12, during the second of a series of virtual roundtables presented by the BDA. The discs themselves were simple as well, he added.

Today, the discs come with DVD and digital copies, options for UltraViolet and applications that connect content to a second screen. The players include dozens of streaming services and options for 3D.

“When people buy a Blu-ray Disc player, it’s no longer a choice between physical and streaming video, because for all intents and purposes, the consumer gets access to both,” said Paul Erickson, senior analyst for IMS Research. “The modern Blu-ray player provides a bridge between the new and the old, and there really isn’t any substitute.”

During the roundtable, Parsons and Erickson discussed Blu-ray’s past, present and future with Rich Marty, VP of emerging platform development and marketing for Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Here’s a selection of the Q&A portion of the roundtable:

Q: What’s the status of plans to standardize UltraViolet so that users don’t need to go to different studio sites to register their purchases? And, more importantly, when will users be able to register an UltraViolet disc merely by putting it in a Blu-ray player and tapping one button?

Marty: The industry is continually evaluating and improving the UltraViolet user experience, including sign-on. Currently, a consumer can utilize Walmart’s Vudu service to aggregate and watch all of their movies in one place. Over time, we expect that the UltraViolet process will become even more streamlined, with the possibility of including direct Blu-ray Disc redemption from a connected player.

Q: Are there any players out there that can stream Ultraviolet? If not, is it expected?

Parsons: I’m not aware of any at the moment, but as a manufacturer of players, I suppose I would have to ask why you’d want to do that if you have a Blu-ray player and already own the title on BD; wouldn’t you want to see the film in the highest-quality HD picture and sound?

Q: Can you say why some studios have moved away from digital copies and started using UltraViolet? Why can’t both be offered? UV is a poor substitute for digital copies as it takes a lot of time to set it up and then all you can do is stream it or watch it on your PC. The move to UV seems to be detrimental to consumers, so I wanted to hear your thoughts on it.

Parsons: Your question is really a product-related one, since it’s completely up to individual studios as to which of the "digital" file types they want to include, if any. I know, for example, that some titles I’ve recently bought include both digital copy and UV, whereas others might offer only UV or only digital copy. The reasons studios package their content the way they do is based entirely on the features they want to include.

Q: Any plans for doing Blu-ray Audio releases for the audiophile market? Also, what was the motivation behind SPHE switching from Dolby TrueHD on their home video releases to DTS-HD Master Audio?

Marty: Blu-ray is the ideal format for high-def music and concert releases, and our sister company Sony Music has released a number of titles on the format to date. As Sony Pictures, we don’t generally handle that content and focus on feature films and TV shows. In terms of audio codecs, we are constantly evaluating the high-definition audio landscape, as we did when we made the shift to DTS HD-MA.

Q: What’s the current split in BD vs. DVD software sales?

Marty: For key new release titles, the split can go as high as 50%-plus and we expect that go higher as Blu-ray penetration increases.

Q: What is Sony Pictures' position on upgrading the Blu-ray specs to put 4K and 8K native video on a BD disc (ultra-high-def specs are 3840x2160 lines of resolution for 4K and 7680x4320 for 8K, current 1080p specs are 1920X1080)?

Marty: As mentioned, the Blu-ray format is well-positioned to adapt to evolving standards. As the future unfolds, Sony Pictures is in a good position with our asset library, given that we already master a number of titles at 4K resolution.

Q: I was wondering if you think that Blu-ray is in fact the last physical format or if you see something like SD cards replacing it in the future.

Parsons: I’ve learned to avoid trying to predict the future, but I do think that new physical formats are based on specific applications that mandate their use. For standard-definition, we had DVD, which did the best possible job of presenting content in that resolution. For HDTV, we have Blu-ray, which has enough capacity to present 1080p images and uncompressed sound with the highest possible quality available. Fortunately, if and when 4K begins to make an entrance on the scene, Blu-ray has enough capacity to handle that job, too.

Q: What is the current split between streaming and packaged media?

Parsons: The most recent numbers we have from IHS Screen Digest is for 2011, which showed about 16% of revenue was for streaming, and 84% was for packaged media.

Q: Apple has made a point of saying that its new retina displays actually have more pixels than an HDTV, suggesting the picture quality is better than Blu-ray. Do you think Blu-ray will be able to become more high-def with greater resolution? Is there a next-gen HD in the works?

Parsons: We are already at the maximum resolution available for the HDTV systems currently in use around the world (1080p), so the only way to become “more high def” would be to incorporate 4K resolution into the format. At present, the BDA is not working on a 4K version of Blu-ray, but if and when the time comes to do that, we believe the 50GB capacity should allow us to accommodate the much higher data rates that 4K sources require.

Q: How does Sony feel the Blu-ray 3D (or other 3D format) adoption is going with consumers?

Marty: 3D adoption should be looked at as a more of a marathon than as a sprint. 3D is quickly becoming a standard feature set on new HDTVs, and as such, there will be a continued hunger for 3D content. We’re pleased with the Blu-ray 3D results to date and the excitement that surrounds it. As you look at this summer’s 3D movie slate, there are obviously a number of new 3D titles coming later this year to drive that excitement and adoption.

Q: When do you see a new format possibly replacing Blu-ray? Or is Blu-ray going to enjoy the same amount of market dominance that DVD had?

Parsons: Packaged media formats don’t really come along all that often, because each represents a standardized, dependable way to distribute and enjoy content around the world. We knew this when we built the specifications for Blu-ray, since formats like VHS, CD, DVD and even vinyl records tend to stick around for many decades. Blu-ray has continued to gain in popularity over the past six years, with a current household penetration of about one-third of U.S. homes so far, and it hasn't shown any sign of slowing down at all. It’s also encouraging to see that some of the newer releases coming on the market can represent more than half of packaged media sales, indicating that Blu-ray should continue to play a very significant role in the market. … The format has adapted to include many new ways of enjoying content.

Q: For this holiday season, how do you think Blu-ray disc players will stack up against the various alternatives?

Erickson: I think BD players will fare fairly well this holiday season. I think, as always the first and biggest obstacle to pass for the mainstream consumer during the holidays is an accessible price. As we've seen over the last few years, BD players have dropped lower and lower, to where now sub-$100 players are quite common. I think we will see increased segmentation of streaming-only players such as Roku and Apple TV under $100, partially because sub-$100 BD players have applied pressure to those products — BD players offer a more versatile value. As we see more players on Black Friday and during the holidays drop to near-DVD-player pricing, it puts even more pressure on streaming-only boxes. Given the ability to play physical media, and common access to mainstream streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, I think BD players will look quite attractive compared to streaming only devices. Versus game consoles, mainly the PS3 and Xbox 360, I think BD players are attractive due to the lower price points. BD players compare well for the main reason that they sit at significantly different price points in general. ... However, modern game consoles, for a higher price, do offer very competent access to physical and streamed content. The rise in adoption of connected/smart TVs can also be seen as the growth of a future competitor, but that remains a streaming-only proposition. Replacing a TV is also a much more costly, and much more long-timeframe proposition. BD players are accessibly priced and add capabilities to prior TV generations without "smart" features. Overall I think BD players are going to increase in appeal, and compare quite well to alternatives this holiday season primarily because of the value offered for money, when it comes to the ability of people to consume media.

Q: Have you had any feedback from customers regarding the downgrading of rental Blu-ray to remove extras and force the viewing of previews? I am not sure if Sony does this but certainly other studios do.

Marty: We haven’t had any specific feedback on rental discs to date, but on a separate note, we are evaluating the user experience at disc start-up in general. Although there are some legal constraints (logos, FBI warnings, etc.) and we can’t make guarantees, we do want to ensure that the Blu-ray consumer has an optimal experience from start to finish — and are looking closely at what can be achieved.

Q: How does the landscape look in five years? Blu-ray? Streaming? Something we haven’t seen yet?

Erickson: The market as always, is unpredictable, but I think if we extend certain trends we see now, there's a good chance we'll see: 1. Blu-ray continuing as a specific format, much higher capacity than you see today, with 4K, 3D and other potential features being standard. 2. Physical and streamed media sharing equal footing — by this I mean certain use cases will always need physical media. You will not have a stable high-speed Internet connection everywhere and in every place. This is just reality. In these use cases, such as road trips in the middle of nowhere for example, physical media is still key. 3. Pay-TV services will be much more developed in how they allow consumers to consume the content they've subscribed to, on the various screens they own. 4. Blu-ray's content transportability to mobile devices will be mature, and common. 5. Streaming will be far more accepted and understood by consumers today. 6. Lastly, consumers will be much more savvy about consuming digital media in all forms. Overall Blu-ray will still be around I believe, as part of the various ways and means by which people can legitimately purchase and consume media across their varied devices.

Q: Is there a roadmap within BDA to upgrade Blu-ray specs for putting 4K and 8K native video on a BD disc? Is there still no call to do so? If so, why not? One supposition is that many may feel physical media such as BD won't survive long enough to see 4K and 8K content become a reality for the home, and that's why there's no call to upgrade BD. Is that the case?

Parsons: As I’ve said before, there is currently no plan to add 4K or 8K to the Blu-ray specs, so there is no official roadmap for them. But bear in mind that we still don't even have 100% penetration of HDTV sets in the U.S. (currently about 75% or so), so we're still out there promoting the benefits of HDTV to those who haven't taken the plunge yet. The home theater folks are, as always, at the bleeding edge of technology, and it's understandable that those who are clued into 4K are eager to put it to use. If and when we do decide to develop a 4K version of Blu-ray, however, I'm confident that only packaged media will have the capacity and throughput needed to do it justice, since it contains four times the picture information as 1080p — the average U.S. household bandwidth of 5 Mbps is simply not fast enough to handle 1080p reliably, let alone 4K.

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