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Insights from home entertainment industry experts. Home Media blogs give you the inside scoop on entertainment news, DVD and Blu-ray Disc releases, and the happenings at key studios and entertainment retailers. “TK's Take” analyzes and comments on home entertainment news and trends, “Agent DVD Insider” talks fanboy entertainment, “IndieFile” delivers independent film news, “Steph Sums It Up” offers pithy opinions on the state of the industry, and “Mike’s Picks” offers bite-sized recommendations of the latest DVD and Blu-ray releases.

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17 Jun, 2004

TV on DVD is the Perfect Fit for Viewers' Hectic Lifestyles

The TV on DVD phenomenon, studio leaders concede, caught them by surprise. “Complete season” sets of contemporary as well as classic series continue to be released at a frenetic clip.

The latest studio speed racer to enter the fray: Universal Studios Home Video, hungrily eyeing all the opportunities for programming made possible by its studio parent's recent acquisition by NBC.

Indies, too, are stepping up their efforts in the game, with Image Entertainment preparing a lavish new high-definition package of the entire “The Twilight Zone” series — “complete season” boxed sets are slated to roll out beginning Dec. 28 — and First Look Entertainment dipping its artsy toes in the TV arena with “Unsolved Mysteries.”

The other day, as I was talking to a friend about the upcoming second-annual TV DVD conference (shameless plug alert: it's set for Oct. 19 at the Wyndham Bel Age in West Hollywood), he asked me what I considered to be a surprising question: “How long will it last?”

I told him what I'm going to tell you: This is not one of your flavor-of-the-week trends, but a vital new industry capable of not only regenerating itself, but also of changing the way consumers watch TV.

Let me explain both points together, because they really are interrelated. We're never going to reach the point where the market is saturated with TV product, simply because each year there's a new season. Classic TV series sell OK, but the really big sales numbers come from top-rated contemporary programs like “C.S.I.” and “The Sopranos” that are still going strong on the tube. Shortly after a season ends, it winds up in a DVD package — and there are plenty of fans, me included, who have never seen a single episode on broadcast or cable TV. We like to watch our favorite series on DVD, when, where and how long we choose. Maybe the timing isn't convenient, maybe we suffer from adult ADD and can't stand wasting our time watching commercials — in any event, we follow each show as rabidly as regular viewers, just on DVD, one or two steps behind. When a new DVD season comes out, we're glued to our screens just as religiously as our TV-watching counterparts are when the fall TV season starts. And when it's over, we're just as impatient for the next season to come our way.

In the future, I only see people like me increasing in number. We Americans have become increasingly time-pressed. Our workloads haven't gotten any easier with the advent of cell phones and e-mail and PDAs — to the contrary, they've gotten harder. On top of that, we have children with full social calendars and aging parents who need attention as well. We can't be tied down to watching “Alias” every Sunday night at 8 p.m., and DVD lets us schedule the viewing time and brings the added benefit of no commercials.

We're already seeing minitrends develop in the still-burgeoning TV DVD market. Miniseries. Hallmark Hall of Fame specials. Old variety shows like Johnny Carson and Sonny & Cher, through a mail-order company called Respond2Entertainment.

Lately, a flurry of reality-TV shows have come out on DVD, including “Cops,” “Big Brother” and “Survivor.” To me, that's the ultimate salute: disposable TV is being archived, bought and collected.

What's next — DVDs of vintage TV commercials? Don't laugh. Already, smart programmers are including period TV spots and promos on DVD collections of classic TV shows. And since March, two suppliers, GoodTimes and Koch, have actually released compilation DVDs of commercials: World's Funniest and Cleverest Commercials from GoodTimes and Hit Celebrity TV Commercials from Koch.

16 Jun, 2004

The Union of TV and DVD Has Been Fruitful

For TV addicts like myself, summer can be a very long dry spell of limited new programming. Don't get me wrong, I like reruns, they just don't yield the same level of excitement as the regular season.

On one hand, it's good — it kind of forces you to do other stuff. On the other hand, now there's DVD to fill the gap. I've been thinking about filling the new programming holes with some TV on DVD product I have for shows I've yet to get into, like “Monk” and “Nip/Tuck.” I'm just afraid that come fall, I'll have added a few new TV obsessions to my already long list.

I was watching network TV the other day (I have to, it's all I allow myself to have) and saw a couple of commercials for cable programming that I think could have an effect on TV lovers like myself.

The first was a really ingenious ad in which Tony Shalhoub, who plays the titular germphopic, obsessive-compulsive cop from “Monk,” and Anthony Michael Hall, “The Dead Zone's” hunky psychic who can read people's futures by touching their heads (from what I gather).

Both shows air on the USA Network, and in the commercial, “Monk” is chatting to the hunky psychic and says something to the effect of “Well, do you really have to touch them to do it?” kind of squeamishly.

It's funny, and it kind of made me want to order cable so I could watch these two. It certainly made me want to rip open the DVD sets I own for both of these shows. Incidentally, Monk: The Complete First Season and The Dead Zone Complete Second Season recently hit DVD — and although the commercial didn't mention the releases, I'm willing to bet more than a few shoppers who saw it will notice these two releases the next time their browsing through DVD shelves.

The same goes for the recent TV ad I saw for “Sex and the City” on TBS. Apparently, the network is really concerned that people know the show is still going to be steamy even with toned-down content for non-HBO language and nudity standards. Hmm. To me, that commercial kind of highlighted the difference even more and could potentially steer “Sex and the City” newbies to DVD instead. After all, pretty much anyone knows that in the time it takes to say Manolo Blahnik they can see and hear the “City” girls bare it all in any number of HBO's complete-season Sex and the City DVD sets.

It's all about choice, and the TV programming format and DVD have been building a very close relationship lately, one that consumers will get the most choice out of.

15 Jun, 2004

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

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.

14 Jun, 2004

High-Def Debate Could Use Some Clarification

At last week's DVD Lucky 7, sponsored in part by Video Store Magazine, it became clear that one of the sticking points for the replicators is the data for Blu-ray. They'd like to test it.

Now, any politicos worth their salt will tell you that concealing a secret is often worse than fessing up (just ask Martha Stewart). At last week's conference, father of DVD and HD-DVD proponent Warren Lieberfarb was able to score some points with his Blu-ray-as-“vaporware” argument because the Blu-ray proponents would not publish their data.

While the Blu-ray team declared that their product was real, offering a demonstration, the HD-DVD argument that it may not be practical hit home because the Blu-ray team had not won over the replication community by offering specifics.

The simple revelation of such data would take a lot of air out of the HD-DVD argument. So I'm going to ask, what's the holdup?

13 Jun, 2004

Does the VSDA, NARM Merger Make Sense?

The digital era has created an opportunity for a diverse range of entertainment media to be melded together with increasing frequency as home entertainment hardware has become more convergent across platforms. Video games and DVD are finding their way together on more and more occasions. Of course, music DVD is one of the fastest-growing genres in home entertainment software. And we're seeing music play an increasingly important role in the development of video games.

So it's no surprise that the Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA) and the National Association of Recording Merchants (NARM) have entered into formal talks exploring the idea of merging the two trade groups together as was announced last week.

Both groups recognize that their memberships have more in common than ever before. I am not able to get information on what the overlap is in membership between the two groups, but I suspect it's pretty significant. Certainly, music retailers have embraced home video in a big way. Many music retailers report that home video accounts for as much as 50 percent or more of their total revenue, and without video they would likely be out of business.

On the video retailer side, the music DVD genre is one that they are starting to embrace to a greater extent, something they share with music retailers. And, of course, the video game business is one that home video retailers have been pursuing for some years now.

The fact is that today you could safely meld not only the VSDA and NARM memberships, but also that of the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association's (primarily game retailers) into a home entertainment software retailer category, since they all share elements of each other's businesses. In fact, these three groups are part of the five-member Coalition of Entertainment Retail Trade Associations (CERTA) that was formed earlier this year as a lobbying and public relations coalition that seeks to advance the shared interests these groups naturally have in delivering entertainment to consumers.

The VSDA and NARM have reportedly been dancing around the merger idea for years, at one point creating a committee several years ago to explore the options of how the groups could join forces.

Interestingly enough, the VSDA's recent creation of an autonomous division for independent retailers, the iGroup, may share a strong affinity with many of the indie brethren on the NARM side who struggle to compete in the landscape of major chains and mass merchants.

Over the course of the next several months, the two groups will be creating a list of positive and negative attributes to a possible merger, and we'll have to wait and see how it all shakes out. I'd like to hear video retailers' viewpoints on the merger idea. Send me your comments and let me know if we can use them for publication in Video Store Magazine or on this Web site. I can be reached at the e-mail link at the top of this column.

11 Jun, 2004

High-Def Showdown at Lucky 7: Two Sides Face Off and a Voice of Reason Emerges

The sparks sure were flying during the Next-Generation Super Session at our Third Annual Home Entertainment Summit earlier this week. Warren Lieberfarb, the feisty ex-president of Warner Home Video and “father” of DVD, came out in support of HD-DVD, a high-definition optical-disc format favored by Toshiba and NEC. Benjamin Feingold, president of Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, spoke for the Blu-ray Disc Group, a high-def format developed by Sony, his division's parent.

Both formats use a blue laser rather than a red one for a superior picture. HD-DVD costs less to make, because the manufacturing process is essentially similar to existing DVD, which means replicators won't have to undergo costly makeovers. But the capacity is a little less than Blu-ray, which advocates of the Sony camp say is shortsighted in an era where everything needs to be supersized.

Just before the session began, Lieberfarb marched up to Feingold in the lobby of the Wyndham Bel Age, where the summit was held. Extending his hand, he said, “Don't take it personally, what I'm going to say.” Feingold shot up from his seat and told Lieberfarb the same thing.

During the session, Lieberfarb blasted Blu-ray, which hasn't yet published its specifications, “vaporware,” and predicted HD-DVD would ultimately triumph “because it's right.”

Feingold and his allies, when it was their turn to speak, maintained HD-DVD is inadequate for an increasingly interactive future and twisted Lieberfarb's “right comment” to state, “HD-DVD is right now. Blu-ray is the future.”

The nine studio presidents who took the stage right after the Super Session were clearly a bit shell-shocked. Each one said he's still on the fence when it comes to choosing sides, but all agreed that a compromise had better be reached, and soon, before the actual product came to market.

But it was Disney's video chief, Bob Chapek, who spoke most passionately and eloquently, during his luncheon keynote address. Chapek warned that both sides rushing to market would only result in a fatal train wreck, which he aptly demonstrated via an animated Power Point presentation that showed two trains on a collision course.

He urged restraint and caution on both sides, and was loudly applauded. Scanning the faces in the crowd, you could almost sense the fear and apprehension of an industry that created a good thing — DVD — but now stands in danger of blowing it.

I'm as hyped on the concept of a high-definition optical disc as anyone. I believe there's a need for it, and it should come to market sooner rather than later, certainly before the networks begin broadcasting in high definition and the evening news looks crisper and cleaner than your DVD.

But there's got to be one, and only one, standard. Someone asked me, if there's a showdown, who do I hope wins.

My answer: “Bob Chapek.”

10 Jun, 2004

Next-Gen DVD: Supply-and-Demand Fodder

After emerging unscathed from this week's contentious next-generation DVD “discussion” at the Home Entertainment Summit: DVD Lucky 7, which saw DVD pioneer (HD DVD proponent) and former Warner Home Video president Warren Lieberfarb openly challenge the Blu-ray Disc consortium to reveal its 50GB dual-layer disc, I realized that no matter which format becomes the standard, the public still has the final say.

In talking with several DVD replication companies and listening to Bob Chapek, president of Buena Vista Home Entertainment, address the issue during lunch at Lucky 7, conventional wisdom indicates that market desire doesn't necessarily have to translate into market demand.

Chapek's analogy to the music industry's failed attempts to revitalize sales through DVD Audio and SACD offers sage advice that just because “Lawrence of Arabia” looks cleaner in Blu-ray doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to buy it.

8 Jun, 2004

Who Wants To Survive Another Season of Faux Reality?

Stand back, Jack, we could be in for another season of stomach-turning, misnamed “reality” programming.

I guess there are a few people who never get tired of this “who-wants-to marry-a-farm-animal-that-used-to-live-in-a-Manhattan-penthouse-before-surviving-a-month-on-a-deserted-island-at-a-high-school-reunion-and-becoming-an-American Idol” programming, but with the exception of one recently concluded guilty pleasure — Bravo's “Showbiz Moms and Dads” — I can't change the channel fast enough when it comes on. In fact, the recent faux news puff pieces on those shows and expiring sitcoms are making me switch off formerly reputable news magazine programs as well.

At least one director calls this pap “dramality,” which is slightly more accurate than the absurd “reality” tag.

That moniker for the genre may encapsulate why we are probably in for more of it, ad nauseum. You see, so-called reality programming is a really cheap way to get a program on the air with a minimum of payments to writers and actors. “Survivor” pays a contestant $1 million at the end of the season. “Friends” was reportedly costing $8 million per half hour. When there is no talent involved, you don't have to pay talent.

For those who may have forgotten, surreality programming got a big boost when the movie and TV studios feared an actors strike a few years ago. The shows nearly eliminated the need for professional actors, so the content producers could scrap projects that did need them.

With the writers and directors still miles apart on DVD and Internet residuals, we could be in for another round. If that happens, someone please call me for a new show. I have a great idea.

It's called “Survivor: Living Room.” You put a group of TV viewers into a living room with no drugs or alcohol and see who can survive without killing themselves — or each other — as they watch an endless stream of shows about people making what should be the most important decisions of their lives in the shallowest possible forum and self-loathing twits having themselves surgically sculpted into Barbie dolls. No wonder viewers are deserting broadcast television in droves.

This whole scenario may have one redeeming quality: It's nearly guaranteed to send the rest of the viewing public scrambling for their DVDs.

Late addendum: As if we needed further proof, just after I wrote this column, TBS announced a casting call for its new "reality" series, "The Real Gilligan's Island." 'Nuff said.

7 Jun, 2004

DVD Expands Viewing Experience

I confess. I don't get anime. But I'm trying. Last week, while I was on vacation, I watched Akira, one of the classic anime features of all time.

I finished the film pretty confused, but luckily the DVD extras offered ample explanation, including a glossary of terms that helped explain some of the major plot points in the film.

Without those extras, I'd be left in the dark — unable to appreciate a film that influenced so many. But my curiosity was rewarded with extras that helped me understand the film better and appreciate it — even if I still don't count it among my favorites.

I've often noticed that some films get better on the second or third viewing, while others get worse. Platoon, for instance, needs only one viewing in my mind, while Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket reveals layers on second and third viewings. Both are about the same subject, the Vietnam War, but one is less accessible on first viewing.

Just another advantage of DVD. It makes film connoisseurs out of anime dunces like me.

5 Jun, 2004

Dialogue Continues on Key Issues for High Definition

This week we are celebrating DVD's seventh year in the market during the Third Annual Home Entertainment Summit, this year themed “Lucky 7.” The conference, produced by Video Store Magazine in cooperation with DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group and The Hollywood Reporter, will see a gathering of several hundred studio and retail senior executives in West Hollywood, Calif., who will spend two days talking about the state of the market and the future of packaged home entertainment.

One of the major issues sure to be explored in much detail during the summit will involve the future of the next generation of packaged media, the high-definition disc. There has been plenty of media coverage of the two major “competing” formats in the space — HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc — but not a great deal of opportunity to listen to them, virtually side-by-side, in one location, discussing the merits of their formats and addressing the valid concerns many in the industry have over the potential confusion should both formats end up entering the marketplace.

In this week's issue of VSM, in a special section devoted to the Summit (beginning on page 15), Thomas K. Arnold, group editor, put a series of tough questions to representatives from both format camps so that we can see their positions on a variety of issues side-by-side. At the Summit itself, attendees will see presentations by representatives from both formats one after the other — again, a terrific opportunity to get a stronger grasp on the capabilities of the two formats and their potential impact on the marketplace.

Certainly, there will be plenty of discussion on some of the panels that follow on the high-definition issue (I know I plan on trying to pin down studio executives on the issue on a panel I am moderating).

There is little doubt that the people who will be most influential in establishing which of these formats becomes the dominant platform for high definition are the studios. Content is still king, and the format with the most content backing is likely to win the hearts and minds of the consumers at the retail counter. So far, other than Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment (for obvious reasons, due to its relationship with Sony and Blu-ray), the studios have not publicly stated their backing of one or the other. Can we expect one or more to make such a pronouncement this week at the conference? Doubtful. But the day will come in the not-too-distant future when decisions will be made, since it's unlikely studios will support both formats.

The consensus of industry analysts is that the studios aren't exactly chomping at the bit to move forward with a market introduction of high definition, hoping to maximize DVD profits before introducing a new choice to consumers.

Still, many questions and issues need to be addressed before the long process of market development for high definition can move forward and a market leader emerges. At VSM, we'll just keep doing our part.