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THE MORNING BUZZ: What's New With D-VHS? Practically Nothing

3 Feb, 2002 By: Thomas K. Arnold

Years ago, when "Saturday Night Live" was at its peak, there was a skit about an annoying character who just wouldn't go away, bothering a hapless couple until the wee hours of the morning and leeching everything he could take off them-chips, soft drinks, even their bed.

The Thing That Wouldn't Leave, they called him. And that pretty well sums up my feelings toward last week's surprise resurrection of digital videotape, which first reared its ugly head back in the middle 1990s and is now all of a sudden emboldened by the software support of four major studios.

Let me state, unequivocally, that I share the sentiments of my old friend Russ Solomon, founder of the venerable Tower Records and Video chain, in that I consider tape to be an imperfect medium, a means to an end. In audio circles, tape survived and even thrived through various incarnations-reel-to-reel, 8-track, cassette-until the arrival of the compact disc triggered a slow but steady death march. Forget the flawed vinyl LP-optical media had reached its state of the art, and tape was no longer necessary.

In home entertainment, we've seen a very similar scenario. We have seen the brief ascent of Beta, quickly toppled in a graceless coup by the coarser VHS, which now after a 20-year reign is on its way out thanks to our own state-of-the-art optical media, DVD. In the meantime we witnessed a brief challenge by the laserdisc, which like the vinyl LP was fatally flawed by overriding limitations-among them, a lack of recordability and an ungainly size. In fact, I still believe that the 12-inch laserdisc was doomed primarily due to timing: it was introduced at the very same time that another 12-inch disc, the vinyl LP, in very similar packaging, was being herded out to pasture by that sexy little 5-incher called the CD.

But I digress. The advent of the DVD, particularly now with the recordability factor rapidly coming into affordable play, makes videotape all but obsolete. It's an anachronism; my wife even took a passing look at our dwindling collection of VHS tapes and, with a sneer, informed me, "They look like 8-tracks."

That said, I have to wonder why four major studios are backing D-VHS, this spruced-up version of a clearly outdated technology. On the one hand, the reasons are clear: professional jealousy (Columbia TriStar and Warner each hold patents on DVD, which means they get a portion, albeit a very small portion, of every disc sold by their competitors) and the potential to generate incremental revenues by selling their movies to HDTV diehards who bought their fancy home theater systems just a tad early (HDTV won't be the broadcast standard for another four years).

But in my humble opinion, what's happening here is something along the lines of cutting off your nose to spite your face. The potential risks far outweigh the likely rewards. Introducing a new digital format at a time when the public is rapidly embracing another (DVD) could cause massive confusion in the marketplace, particularly since D-VHS' primary selling point appears to be that it's even better than DVD, and that DVD won't be this good until the so-called "blue-light" standard arrives sometime in the future.

Then again, maybe my worries are groundless. The DVD steamroller is so strong, so powerful, that nothing can stand in its way. Perhaps the American public is smart enough to realize that D-VHS is just another ill-fated roadblock, sort of like Divx, and is destined to fail.

Let's hope so. Let's hope and pray for the end of tape. It's time has come.

Will studio support for D-VHS confuse consumers? Will it undermine DVD? Tell us here!

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