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High-Def Battlefield Moves to Digital Hollywood

29 Mar, 2006 By: Jessica Wolf

Dogged by delays on both the hardware and the software side, backers of the two rival next-generation optical-disc formats now say the real launch will be in the fourth quarter, with everything that happens until then more of a testing ground.

“When it comes down to it, what happens in April and May isn't nearly as important as what happens in October, November and December,” Warner Home Video SVP Steve Nickerson said in a panel discussion Tuesday, March 28, at the Digital Hollywood Conference in Santa Monica, Calif.

He also downplayed the recent release-date shuffling for Warner's first batch of HD DVD titles, which had been scheduled to arrive in stores Tuesday but now are slated for April 18. Toshiba subsequently pushed back the launch of its HD DVD players.

By the time the fourth quarter hits, there will be a full lineup of titles to choose from in both formats, and a complement of hardware, ranging from set-top players to computers and Sony's Blu-ray-enabled PlayStation 3.

Nickerson, reiterating a recently released WHV consumer research survey, also dismissed concerns that a format war would lead to consumer confusion and disinterest. He noted that in most industries, multiple, noncompatible formats are surviving and even thriving, including the video game market, with its Sony PlayStation, Microsoft Xbox and Nintendo Game Boy.

Fellow panelist Andy Parsons, SVP of Pioneer Electronics and a Blu-ray backer, agreed that a format war, at least initially, won't dim hopes for a next-generation format. But ultimately, he said, one format will fall by the wayside, and it will be up to the consumer to decide.

He predicted that ultimately Blu-ray Disc will triumph, overcoming HD DVD's initial advantage of coming to market first (mid-April) and having cheaper hardware (Toshiba's entry-level player lists for $499, about half what the least-expensive Blu-ray Disc players will be priced at).

Parsons noted that Blu-ray enjoys the support of seven of the eight major studios, an equation that lifts Lionsgate into the ranks of the majors and also separates MGM from Sony.

And the consumer always will follow the most compelling content, regardless of hardware, Parsons said.

“It's like real estate — location, location, location — only content, content, content,” he said.

Parsons noted that the Blu-ray consumer this year will have access to 108 titles, counting the entire slate suppliers have announced. Of these, 83 will be unique to the Blu-Ray format. HD DVD, in comparison, will have just 44 titles, 19 of them unique.

Of course, panelists pointed out, no content-provider has completely ruled out eventually releasing product on both formats, though that could quickly become an expensive, undesirable practice.

It may not be a perfect world, having two formats, but the industry hasn't missed out on any consumer excitement because consumers are “already excited about high-definition,” Nickerson said. He cited estimates that the nearly 12 million HDTV-enabled households in the country will more than double by the end of this year.

“We already know they want more high-def content than they are getting now,” he said.

Addressing a sticky topic for early HDTV adopters, Parsons estimated that “about half” of the current HDTV sets in the market would slip into the oft-maligned “analog hole” and be affected by the potential Image Constraint Token (ICT).

The ICT is an optional tactic provided within AACS, the still-unfinished copy-protection spec for both formats. Content owners could imbed a command into a high-def disc that would down-res the lines of resolution for the digital content on the disc if it is passing through an older HDTV set that has only analog, or non-HDMI outputs. Basically, the image would not be true high-definition quality.

But, Parsons noted, several suppliers, including Blu-ray's biggest backer, Sony, said they don't plan to enable the ICT, at least not initially.

Backers in both camps agreed it will be the heightened visual and audio experience that will draw the first consumers to high-def discs.

It will be incumbent on studios and manufacturers to promote and educate consumers about the advanced interactive features of the next-generation of packaged media.

These kind of features, and filling up the space on the high-capacity discs may not be cost-effective for some time, Nickerson said, until the perceived value of these kinds of extras is cemented in the consumers minds.

It took some time to get to that point with standard definition DVD too, he said.

During another next-gen session at the conference, Kevin Collins, senior program manager at Microsoft (for HD DVD's iHD features) and Joseph McCrosson of Panasonic Hollywood Laboratory (for Blu-Ray's BD Java features) showed off prototype discs highlighting examples of the two format's much-vaunted interactivity.

Collins, who blamed the postponed launch of HD DVD discs on the delay in formalized final specs from AACS, clicked through actress Joan Allen's biography as Universal's The Bourne Supremacy played, demonstrating the seamless menu interaction that does not interrupt film viewing.

McCrossan attempted to take out his fellow Scotsman Sean Connery demonstrating a shooting game feature that viewers can play on a remote while watching The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Both players also highlighted Internet connectivity features (standard in both formats) and picture-in-picture commentary tracks. They noted future commentaries could include a “telestrating” feature, that is, a director/producer “drawing” on the scene like John Madden covering a football game.

Morgan Holly, VP of digital services for Ascent Media Management said his company is worried about quality control issues when it comes to all these nifty interactive offerings.

“If we don't have limitations, we're going to get in trouble,” he said. “With all the different players out there, quality assurance is going to be difficult.”

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