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Dueling Formats Are In An Uneven Showdown

1 Feb, 2002 By: Stephanie P. Bill H.

A longstanding digital duel resurfaced last week as four studios — Artisan, DreamWorks, Fox and Universal Studios — announced plans to release titles on D-VHS.

A once-serious competitor to DVD, the digital VHS format is surfacing on the movie software side as a niche player, a format for high-definition television users, which D-VHS supporter Fox tags at 2 million households. Unlike DVD, D-VHS can take full advantage of HDTV capabilities. "The picture quality is four times better than DVD," said Fox VP Steve Feldstein,

Another advantage to D-VHS, studios say, is its copy protection capabilities. Feldstein notes a consumer cannot connect two D-VHS players and make a copy of a tape; only special duplication machines can duplicate copy protected D-VHS tapes.

"There's a consumer need for this," said Universal Studios Home Video president Craig Kornblau. "There are many consumers who have home theater and when we saw the demonstration it was so incredible we felt we had to put our content on it so they could enjoy it in their home. The only delay was to figure out about copy protection and this offered the highest level of copy protection we've seen."

Notably absent from the studio lineup are Warner Home Video and Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment. Warner and Sony, Columbia TriStar's parent, each hold patents on DVD technology entitling them to a small percentage of every disc sold. Warner is part of a consortium of six companies that gets 7.5 cents a disc. The Sony, Philips and Pioneer pool divides 5 cents a disc.

Following the D-VHS announcement, a Warner source said, "Warner is not planning right now on releasing titles in this format. It doesn't have a chance of success. It doesn't have the kind of functionality of DVD." The source also mentioned that personal video recorders have "leap-frogged" tape recording technology.

Warner Home Video president Warren Lieberfarb in August 2000 told Video Store Magazine D-VHS "misses the boat by being backward-looking," adding "it will never offer the high-speed seek-search random access capability of an optical disc."

Last week, Columbia TriStar president Ben Feingold told the Los Angeles Times, "It's a really dumb idea."

Fox's Feldstein said, "We're fully committed to DVD," but that D-VHS serves the HDTV audience with a high-quality picture. During a demonstration of the technology in Los Angeles last week, the studios all indicated they expect to have feature film titles in high definition D-Theater (JVC's term for the copy protection technology) D-VHS available in June or July. All will be recorded with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Fox says they''l also include DTS soundtracks on many titles as well.

At least one studio source indicated that the movies will retail for about $30 to $40 each (blank D-VHS tapes run about $20 each). It has yet to be decided whether the studios will adopt any form of region coding similar to DVD.

Studio representatives at the event viewed D-VHS as a movie-only format, geared towards serious, high-end, early adopters and collectors from the core market HDTV owners.

They were very clear that they don't intend to go after or undermine the existing DVD market — D-VHS, they stress, is a niche product. They also made it clear that there will be no D-VHS-specific titles, or titles that would be released first on D-VHS and then only later on DVD. The first titles that will be available will all be big-budget action and sci-fi stuff, and all catalog titles. Eventually, they may release D-VHS titles day and date with standard VHS and DVD.

The first few titles available will include Independence Day, U-571, X-Men, Total Recall, Terminator 2 and Basic Instinct (a few of which were on display at this demo), with other titles like Die Hard and Galaxy Quest in development. Fox has some 10 titles planned, with more likely over the next 18 months. Universal may also release a number of music titles in addition to feature films.

While D-VHS is "superior in terms of capacity and resolution," analyst Greg Durkin of Alexander & Associates said, it will have a hard time overcoming consumers' "psychological barrier of going back to something that looks just like the old format [VHS]."

"I'm sure that it will have its niche audience," he said. "If laserdisc could do it, this can do it."

Some think the ultimate future is HD-DVD. "I'm sure DVD is going to upgrade," said the Warner source.

Durkin said HD-DVD would require more layers on the disc or an improvement in compression.

Will studio support for D-VHS confuse consumers? Will it undermine DVD? Tell us here!

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