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High-Def Hijinks

17 Aug, 2005 By: Erik Gruenwedel

In trade journalism, a minor detail often becomes headline fodder. Take the ongoing machinations involving rival next-generation DVD formats Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD.

When Lions Gate Entertainment recently intimated an imminent decision on a preferred high-def DVD format (it chose Blu-ray), the mere hint of a pronouncement to select a format warranted a headline in this publication. Ditto for the actual decision. This, despite the fact that Lions Gate is no more married to the Blu-ray format than Paramount Home Entertainment, Universal Studios Home Entertainment and Warner Home Video are beholden to HD DVD.

“We anticipate being among the first to have titles released on Blu-ray,” said Lions Gate president Steve Beeks.

He could just as easily have said HD DVD.

Widely heralded within the home entertainment industry as the savior to the maturing DVD cash cow, acceptance of high-def DVD is at the mercy of market forces, not studio announcements and backroom dealings.

And right now, consumers appear to be staying away from the movie theater, renting less and tempering purchases of that latest special-edition DVD retread.

Lions Gate was merely milking as much standalone ink (in the trades, anyway) it could get while a largely indifferent mainstream media, when not lamenting the plight of that anti-war mom in the dust of Crawford, Texas, preferred to take potshots at a lousy summer box office.

The relative lack of media interest in high-def DVD is due to the fact that neither format is close to fruition nor even entering the market anytime soon — the latter evidenced this week when it was reported that several HD DVD-friendly studios planned to dramatically scale back scheduled launches of the format's packaged media in the fourth quarter.

That decision, too, brought much hand-wringing in the trades — including one columnist who chided the HD DVD camp for bluffing small and predicted Toshiba would emerge with egg on its face.

While bluffing can be entertaining — even elevated to an art form in poker — HD DVD's pronouncements and subsequent retraction of a fourth-quarter launch does not qualify as missing the bar if nobody cares outside of home entertainment and a few CE companies.

It is unlikely consumers will pillory Toshiba for failing to infiltrate the electronics market with nonexistent hardware and software they weren't even aware of.

Josh Bernoff, media analyst with Forrester Research, has characterized both camps' statements on high-def DVD as “angels dancing on the head of a pin” because nothing is yet being manufactured. He said two competing HD formats coming to market would cause consumers to hang back and do nothing.

“The whole thing is going to fall on its face unless the HD DVD group and Blu-ray group come together and have some type of compromise,” Bernoff said.

And produce an actual product that truly transcends what the DVD had over VHS.

Now that would be news.

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