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High Def Cannot Hope to Match the Surge of DVD

28 Jun, 2004 By: Stephanie Prange

Now that some of the bluster over the competing high-def disc formats has died down, I wanted to point out a few other hurdles that may keep any future disc format from re-creating the growth wave of DVD. The stars aligned for DVD in a way the future format cannot possibly match.

Assuming the industry does agree on a common format and times it well without stepping on the current DVD surge, it will never have the advantage of building a sellthrough market the way DVD did. Before DVD, consumers couldn't own every title when it came out. Most titles were priced for rental on VHS. Indeed, a case can be made that the sellthrough pricing of the format was more important to its wide and impressive adoption than the better picture and audio. The increased value of a DVD was a no-brainer for consumers. It sported better quality AND it was available at a low price, while most titles in the established format were not.

We will never see that again. High def will not undercut the price of DVD the way DVD trumped the price and sellthrough availability of VHS. Likely, it will cost more, which could be an impediment to its mainstream adoption.

DVD also had a size advantage over the prevailing format that the proposed high-def formats will not. The little disc was a lightweight compared to the VHS cassette. That meant it could be mailed cheaply and shelved more efficiently. It also spawned Internet sales and rentals. If DVD hadn't been so easy to mail, Netflix would never have gotten off the ground. If the DVD had not been so compact, the TV on DVD genre — in which whole seasons can be put in a boxed set the size of one two-hour VHS cassette — would never have emerged as one of the hottest in the business, with millions of sales never imagined on VHS.

Again, the proposed high-def formats won't have a physical size advantage over DVD. The discs may hold more, but they won't fit any better on consumers' or retailers' shelves. They may hold a few more TV episodes on the single disc, but the difference in saved space won't match the spread between DVD and cassette.

Let's talk extras. DVD had them. Cassettes, for the most part, didn't. That was another big advantage DVD had over the format it aimed to replace.

The proposed high-def formats will offer more extras, but does the public really want them? DVD producers will tell you they can do a lot with the extra space — improve the picture or audio, add more branching, more documentaries, etc. — but I question whether that will be enough to convince consumers to switch formats.

While television's advance into high definition may push consumers and the industry into a new format, it simply won't have the pull of DVD. If the industry is looking for another packaged media juggernaut in high-def discs, it may be sorely disappointed. I don't think we ever see the like of DVD in the packaged media realm again.

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