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High-Def, Ho-Hum

22 Sep, 2005 By: Jessica Wolf

Current gray hair count: one and a half.
Prior to Digital Hollywood Conference this week: one.

This is where my head is after a day of listening to HD-DVD backers talk about the next-generation format.

So there's probably going to be a high-definition format war — yada yada yada.

Nobody wants one — yada yada yada — but there's nothing anyone can do about it but throw their hands up in the air and go: “oh those consumers, they'll figure it out. They'll tell us what they want … eventually.”

Of course, there's the oh-so-compelling argument that it's a race against time because there will be possibly 30 million households with HDTV sets by the end of the year, and those viewers are going to be jonesing for packaged media that looks as good as content they can see on broadcast and cable or satellite TV.

The argument that current HDTV set owners are pretty darn happy with the way plain old DVD looks on those skinny, skinny screens and will stick with DVD rather than choose high-def discs doesn't quite hold water, according to Warner exec Steve Nickerson, speaking Monday at the Digital Hollywood confab in Santa Monica.

“The problem is, even if they have an HDTV set, most people don't have progressive-scan DVD players, and those who do have one, most of those do not have them even hooked up right,” he said.

OK, I see his point. But I think it also brings up a larger issue for the evolution of the format.

Here we are, nearly eight years into DVD, a format that has been universally embraced if not absolutely devoured by the American buying public and the world at large.

And still, most people are not viewing that beloved and fully integrated format in its most ideal viewing situation. If that's the case — and I agree that it is — then think how long it will be before any mass quantity of HDTV and high-def DVD consumers are viewing that format in a manner that takes optimum advantage of its snazzy, cutting-edge attributes.

There are so many things that have to fall into place for the primo high-def home scenario to exist — the right hardware and software properly connected is just the start. For example, studios are making so much of the interactive nature of high-def discs. Well, to properly take maximum advantage of that feature, you have to have one of those nifty IP-enabled TV sets or players. Hmm. I still think that kind of product is pretty far on the horizon for most American households (gas money, you know?).

This is going to be a long, long row to hoe. We are looking at a long litany of years of consumer hardware purchases and upgrades.

And where do people go to make those major purchases? To Fry's Electronics, to Best Buy, to Circuit City, to small boutique home theater stores where they will rely on clerks and salespeople to explain the differences between the two formats. You know which question I bet will come up frequently? “Which one do you oh wise home-theater guru, recommend?”

Certainly, early adopters and technophiles will be well versed in the two formats and make their choices based on their own needs/desires. But for the rest of us, content and hardware backers from the two format groups will be playing a game of telephone, filtering the pluses and minuses of their respective formats to us through their front line — the retailers.

Electronics retailers are going to wield enormous power in the early days (years?) of this format war, and they are the ones who are going to feel the most direct bite in the butt from consumers once the war tips in favor of one or the other formats.

I'm sure greater minds than mine have already thought of all this, but I can't help but feel that after all the lofty arguments on both sides and all the yada-yada-yadaing, what it's going to come down to is a point of sale.

The perspective of each of the two parties in that transaction are going to be far more relevant in the real world than anything studios or manufacturers say in panel discussions, or what we print here.

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