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What If They Came Out With High-Def DVD and Nobody Cared?

15 Jun, 2004 By: Holly J. Wagner

Buena Vista Home Entertainment president Bob Chapek describes it as a train wreck waiting to happen. Others have described it as a showdown or even an arm-wrestling match between Warren Lieberfarb and Ben Feingold.

I call it a pipedream, for a handful of reasons. But we're all talking about high-def DVD and the competing formats that content companies hope consumers will embrace, enough to go out and replace their standard DVDs with the new products when they come out.

Everyone agrees that a format war will kill next-gen DVD. It will confuse consumers — remember Betamax vs. VHS? Remember DVD-Audio? Oh yeah, we don't have to remember DVD-Audio, it's still out there, but mostly as a casualty of a music DVD format war.

But I don't think that's all that is working against a new format. It's easy for those of us in this industry to forget sometimes that there is a rest of the world out there. Yes, folks, there is a real world, and Hollywood is decidedly not it. For one thing, a lot of folks, especially at the top, are pretty insulated from the economic realities the rest of the country faces.

Has anyone noticed that all the logos on the Blu-ray group's member announcements are companies with an interest in selling us new hardware? Take a look at Sony's financials, for example. The company's hardware division is circling the bowl. With no new game consoles in the near future, the company is scrambling to bolster its consumer electronics revenue.

DVD came about as the stock market runup of the 1990s was reaching its zenith. People had plenty of money in their hands. At the same time, Chinese technology and manufacturing was bringing down the cost of DVD players much faster than the cost for VCRs dropped. Even after the stock market crash, a lot of people could afford DVD players. Then there has been a real estate boom. A lot of people with new homes or new money from their refinanced loans had money to outfit media rooms and install home theater systems.

And let's not forget, VHS was 23 years old when DVD arrived on the scene. Even with player prices now almost ridiculously low, there are still millions of homes that are DVDless.

The difference between VHS and DVD picture quality is night and day. The difference is obvious without any special expertise or a trained eye. With the high-def formats, not so much. These new formats will appeal to the kind of audiophiles who think stereo systems aren't complete without equalizers, but the improvements will mean little to the average consumer.

And Americans are headed for thriftier times. There is no economic fuel on the horizon to drive another boom, and a lot of people will be unwilling to switch to another format just 10 years after the last one was introduced, especially when it means giving up the most affordable entertainment systems in recent history for something much more expensive.

DVD's success is based on accessibility — accessible content, bonus materials and, most of all, accessible pricing. Even if all the competing interests can agree, there's nothing to guarantee that consumers will want the new format.

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