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Update: It's Blu-ray for Disney

8 Dec, 2004 By: Thomas K. Arnold

It's Blu-ray Disc for Disney. Buena Vista Home Entertainment has cast its lot with the Sony-backed next-generation optical disc format, vowing to join Sony Pictures Home Entertainment in releasing product when hardware arrives on North American and Japanese shelves a year or more down the pike.

The brewing format war in determining a high-definition successor to DVD thus heats up even more, a week after the home entertainment divisions of three major studios fired the opening salvo in committing to release titles on the rival HD-DVD format, backed by Toshiba Corp.

Buena Vista president Bob Chapek said he was swayed to join the Blu-ray side because of what he believes is the format's superior quality and greater capacity (50 gigabytes on a two-layer disc, rather than HD-DVD's 30GB). HD-DVD backers, in announcing their decision last week, cited cheaper costs and an easier manufacturing transition.

“Blu-ray is an advanced technology that we believe will ultimately lead to an enhanced entertainment experience, and that's what the consumer ultimately buys,” Chapek said. “It also has the side benefit of being a little more difficult to pirate, but the main thing is that consumers have to want this, and it has to be a tangibly different experience.”

Chapek also cited the Blu-ray Disc group's “receptivity to our plan to include, in the specifications, a new application layer that we've been pushing for.” This application layer, Chapek said, “affords us unprecedented levels of interactivity” and provides additional benefits to consumers “that go beyond the HD picture alone.”

“This is where we want to take the world,” Chapek said. “Right now you've got two planets in orbit — you've got the movie orbit and the bonus material orbit, and those two orbits never intersect. Their functionality has to be two separate things because of the limitations of [existing] DVD technology. But now, as the Blu-ray group adopts this application layer, the line between bonus materials and movie dissolves, so you have one interactive, integrated entertainment experience. It really gives the consumer more of a lean-forward experience.”

As part of its commitment to Blu-ray Disc, Buena Vista also will become a member of the board of directors of the Blu-ray Disc Association.

The scorecard is now three major studios for HD-DVD and two for Blu-ray, with the sole holdout, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, still on the fence. However, Fox recently joined the Blu-ray Disc Founders consortium for an inside look at the format, and observers expect Fox to weigh in on Blu-ray as well, putting the race in a dead heat in terms of major-studio software support.

This could lead to a bruising format war should neither side cave in or agree to a compromise.

“It's a shame it has come to this,” said one high-ranking studio executive who asked his name not be used. “It's now clear that both will probably be coming to market, and the consumer will decide.”

Outside the realm of the majors, HD-DVD also has the support of two other suppliers in the Warner family, HBO Home Video and New Line Home Entertainment. Meanwhile, Sony's purchase of MGM earlier this year puts MGM Home Entertainment in the Blu-ray camp, as well.

Echoing common sentiments by those who prefer HD-DVD, Universal Studios Home Entertainment president Craig Kornblau last week told Video Store Magazine he believes the low impact on the current DVD manufacturing process — a typical DVD replication line can be readied to produce HD-DVDs in about five minutes — is one of its great advantages.

In addition, Kornblau said, HD-DVD “will be available within 12 months.” Observers are skeptical Blu-ray will come to market in 2005.

Chapek, however, cites the overwhelming support for Blu-ray on the consumer electronics hardware side as an indication that the business is ready for a revolutionary technology rather than an evolutionary one.

“People are saying it's a real horse race, but when you step away from the situation and look at the sheer number of Blu-ray-committed player options that will be available to consumers, that's something that's going to give them more purchase options and lead to quicker adoption,” Chapek said.

While five of the six major studios have now taken sides in the next-generation format debate, observers note none of the commitments are exclusive.

“It would seem that because the commitments are not exclusive, the studios still have the leverage they need to force what everybody wants, which is the launch of one format, not two,” said veteran home entertainment industry analyst Tom Adams, president of Adams Media Research. “So at this point, it's really still a toss-up.”

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