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Media Skimming the Surface on Blu-ray

19 May, 2008 By: Thomas K. Arnold

Rush Limbaugh and his fellow conservative talk-show hosts have long accused the media of having a liberal bias, and frequently fault what they call the “drive-by media” for being too quick to report the so-called news without properly investigating what is being put out there by liberal politicians and analysts.

I'm not sure how accurate these accusations of an anti-red-state bias are, but I'm beginning to think that the media does have a certain amount of anti-blue — or, rather, anti-Blu — bias when it comes to reporting home entertainment news.

Two months ago The NPD Group released a study that found global awareness of Blu-ray Disc is weak. The press release was picked up by numerous media outlets as further evidence that Blu-ray Disc is facing a long, uphill battle as it seeks to replace standard DVD. I received the same report but after digesting it thoroughly came up with a different interpretation: In the United States, which for our purposes is the key metric for home entertainment trends, 60% of those surveyed were, indeed, aware of what a Blu-ray Disc is. I focused on that statistic in my story, and thus put a legitimately positive spin on what on the surface appeared to be a negative press release.

More recently, another NPD Group study found Blu-ray Disc player sales have slowed to a trickle. Again, the media jumped on this to reinforce what they've already been saying, all along, that Blu-ray player prices are still way too high for mass adoption, particularly since to the average consumer, the difference between standard DVD and Blu-ray Disc isn't all that pronounced.

But again, once you got beneath the surface of the NPD report and actually talked to consumer electronics company executives for their take, another picture emerges: The first quarter is traditionally a low point for CE hardware sales — the study even showed a significant dip in standard-DVD player sales — and the slowdown in Blu-ray player sales is due in large part to a shortage of new players, since everyone's gearing up for BD Live-capable machines and those won't begin rolling out until the summer. Among major consumer media outlets, only The Los Angeles Times properly reported the story, according to one top executive with a leading CE manufacturer. “No one else even bothered to call,” he told me.

If there is an anti-Blu bias among the mainstream media, it's easy to understand. For two years, the media spotlight was focused not on the many benefits of high-definition media, but on the bruising format war between Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD. While this war was raging, the mantra among industry analysts — duly reported by the press — was that if Hollywood and the CE companies couldn't get their act together and agree on a single format, then HD media was doomed and disgusted consumers would stick with standard DVD in the short term and ultimately migrate to the Internet to get their movies through digital downloading.

This faulty train of reasoning has always stumped me. Consumers are investing thousands of dollars on creating elaborate home theater systems that practically beg for high-definition programming. So why would they snub packaged media and turn to the Internet, where the quality of downloadable movies isn't even up to par with standard DVD? Sure, HD movies are slowly becoming available on the Internet, but even on the best computers it takes hours to download a high-def movie — and then there's still the problem of getting that downloaded movie to the living room. The studios have little motive for hastening this transition, since the profit model is murky at best. And without Hollywood's support, digital downloading will remain an afterthought, as evidenced by the fact that the average number of movie downloads on Apple's vaunted iTunes Music Store actually went down in 2007 from 2006.

But you don't read much about that. Even after the format war was resolved in February, there was precious little in the mainstream media about the promise of Blu-ray. There was always a cynical analyst or two to quote about how the future is all about digital downloading.

Maybe the drive-by media should slow down a little and take a look at what's really happening. Either that, or clean their windshields.

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