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The World's Not Yet High-Def

12 Sep, 2007 By: Thomas K. Arnold

Looking ahead, it is becoming apparent that high-definition discs are not going to be the big business the studios predicted they would be in the fourth quarter. Indeed, the consensus in Hollywood now is that it will be the fourth quarter of 2008, rather than 2007, when HD media really, truly becomes a business.

Skeptics might point out that studio executives said the same thing last year, when the fourth quarter of 2006 was supposedly going to be the breakout time for next-generation optical discs. It wasn't. The truth is, no one really knows when HD media is going to catch on.

A recent Warner study found that indifference, not the much-ballyhooed format war, is the primary force keeping consumers away, and I can't say I blame them. I remember those split-screen demonstrations a few years ago, primarily on the Blu-ray Disc side, showing how much clearer the picture was in high-definition. At the time, I wondered what all the hoopla was about — sure, the HD picture was better, but the DVD looked fine to my eyes, unless I was about three inches from the massive HDTV screen.

And yet everyone was crowing about how the world was going HD and packaged media needed a seat at the table. Standard DVDs, everyone was saying, simply wouldn't cut it in an HDTV world, where even local news shows would be in high-definition.

Well, guess what, folks? We're not there yet. Until then, DVDs will be just fine with mainstream America. Heck, they might be fine forever — when DVD-Audio came out and John Thrasher, then with Tower Records and Video, expressed skepticism about having five speakers aimed at him. “I still only have two ears,” he said.

So here's what I think will happen: Just as with broadcast, we're going to have to be force-fed HD before we buy HD discs, en masse. For either Blu-ray Disc or HD DVD to succeed, studios will have to stop making DVD. It won't be like the death of VHS, which consumers slowly abandoned as they realized DVD had a lot more to offer. The truth is, HD media, at least in its present form (with interactivity still more of a concept than a reality, particularly on Blu-ray), isn't all that much better than DVD, at least not to the common eye.

And this lack of a discernable difference is fueling the indifference that's keeping consumers away.

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