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High-Def Debate Continues at Digital Hollywood

20 Sep, 2005 By: Jessica Wolf

Assume crash positions. That's what members of the DVD Forum speaking at yesterday's Digital Hollywood conference looked to be doing in preparation for an increasingly likely next-generation format war.

Warren Lieberfarb, onetime head of Warner Home Video and now one of HD-DVD's most vociferous backers, in his keynote address focused mainly on manufacturability, pointing out that HD-DVD has more ducks in a row on that front than competitor Blu-ray Disc.

Lieberfarb didn't name names but did express disappointment that certain “insurgents to the DVD Forum” had made a format war all but inevitable.

He added that content owners are the only players who could put an end to it.

“The vote whether there will be a destructive and detrimental format war is really in the hands of the studios,” he said.

Another catchphrase of the day was “hybrid.” HD-DVD backers said they believe a disc that holds both high-def and standard definition — either one-sided with two layers, or a double-sided hybrid like DualDisc — could be a valuable transitional product for an emerging market.

Both formats have said they can offer a hybrid disc.

Research shows consumers would be interested in an HD/SD hybrid disc, but it's something studios would have to look at on a per-product issue because of increased costs, said Steve Nickerson, SVP of Warner Home Video.

“For new releases, it makes perfect sense,” he said, especially since homes that transition to HD hardware will still likely have several standard-definition players, too.

There also was some guarded optimism from panelists on Samsung's recent announcement that it is prepping a universal player that would play both formats.

But right now, that's going to be a pricey option, Nickerson said.

“I'd be more excited about it if we were five years down the line,” he said.

Little time or discussion went to purported conciliatory talks between HD-DVD and Blu-ray backers, and suppliers in attendance were decidedly mum on the topic.

Mark Waring, director of Sanyo's technology center, said his company still plans to launch its first-generation HD-DVD players at the end of this year.

Meanwhile, studios are gearing up for HD-DVD software releases in the first quarter of next year. Warner is prepping titles from this year's fourth-quarter DVD lineup, including Batman Begins, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Polar Express “as well as our first-quarter [2006] releases,” Nickerson said.

New Line Home Entertainment is readying titles, including its “Austin Powers” and “Rush Hour” franchises for HD-DVD, said Matt Lasorsa, EVP of marketing. The studio has already started filming extra-content footage in high-definition, Lasorsa said. All content production for the upcoming release of Final Destination 3 is being done in high-def, he said.

HBO is excited about the flexibility HD-DVD's storage can offer for the supplier's deep catalog of serial programming to be released in the new format early next year, said Bob Cowan, SVP of sales. HBO's HD-DVD slate, he said, tentatively includes, The Sopranos Season One, Angels in America, From the Earth to the Moon, Band of Brothers and possibly Rome, which is currently airing on the premium cable channel.

Cowan and the other studio representatives in attendance said it would be a huge marketing challenge to manage the consumer's perceived value of a single high-definition disc. It may be chock full of content that would require a multi-disc set on standard-definition DVD, but consumers may perceive the boxed set as more valuable.

Studios will be watching consumer behavior closely as one or both formats hit the market, when it comes to what kind and how much content to release to hi-def, execs said.

“Consumers are going to vote with their pocketbooks,” Lasorsa said. “We're going to have to monitor that and make product decisions based on their vote.”

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