The next generation DVD format war has started to shift its weight in one direction after months of stalemate.
The two rival formats, HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc, have been competing for the high-definition home video market since their inception. On the surface, both formats are virtually the same, with Blu-ray taking a slight technical edge.
Support from various major Hollywood studios is an important factor, and Blu-ray currently has exclusive support from Warner Brothers, Fox, Disney, Sony, MGM and Lionsgate while HD-DVD has support from Paramount and Universal.
On Jan. 4 of this year, Warner Bros. Entertainment announced it would release its movies exclusively on the Blu-ray format, giving Blu-ray the advantage in terms of studio support. The announcement caused commotion and leading HD-DVD supporter, Toshiba, even canceled a scheduled press conference at the annual Consumer Electronics Show.
“A two-format landscape has led to consumer confusion and indifference toward high-definition, which has kept the technology from reaching mass adoption and becoming the important revenue stream that it can be for the industry,” said Kevin Tsujihara, president of Warner Bros Home Entertainment Group in a press release.
But the yearning to end the next-generation battle isn’t limited to the movie studios. Retailers are enduring dwindling sales of standard DVDs, yet many consumers are waiting for a winning format to emerge before adopting any new high-definition technology.
“Any time you have competing formats like this, there will be a lot of customers who will sit on the sidelines because of confusion or because they don’t want to purchase a format that won’t survive,” said Brian Lucas, a spokesman for Best Buy. “With more and more people investing in high-definition home theaters, we believe when the format war is over, many people will start to enter this market.”
While it is yet to be seen whether Warner’s announcement has effectively decided the format war in favor of Blu-ray, recent statistics are beginning to show HD-DVD’s slow demise. According to Nielsen VideoScan, Blu-ray held 82 percent of the high-definition software sales as of Jan. 27, 2008. Similarly, the latest figures on hardware sales released by the NPD group have Blu-ray garnering close to 93 percent of the market in the week ending on Jan. 12, 2008, following the Warner announcement. The hardware sales figures do not include Sony’s Playstation 3, which is also capable of playing Blu-ray discs or the accessory for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 that enables the system to play HD-DVD discs.
However, if and when the format war does end, not all consumers will be quick to adopt high-definition players. Standard DVDs have been an industry cash cow ever since the format inherited the home video market from VHS. The quality increase between the old-fashioned tapes and the digital discs was immense.
“Unless you have a high-end setup,” said Stephen Prince, professor of communication at Virginia Tech and former president of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. “High-definition is not going to be that sort of increase over standard DVDs.”
Prince was also quick to point out the financial costs in adopting high-definition video as well as the limited product available. Standalone players for both formats still cost hundreds of dollars and to truly take advantage of the high-definition adopters must have a compatible television that can handle the increased resolutions.
In terms of titles, the library of standard DVDs numbers in the tens of thousands while both high-definition formats are still only in the hundreds.
Despite the “war,” the next-generation formats are essentially the same in many areas. Blu-ray often holds the technical edge over HD-DVD, but most people wouldn’t notice a substantial difference. If anything, their similarities have dragged on the format war, leaving the deciding factors to be consumer adoption and studio support.
However, those with standard DVD players don’t need to panic just yet. The market is still strong and the regular DVD isn’t yet going to the wayside.
“Standard DVDs are still the primary focus simply because the next-generation formats have yet to reach mainstream consumers,” Lucas said.
“Even under the best of circumstances, I don’t see this technology having the explosive take-off that (the) DVD had,” Prince said. “For the average consumer, standard DVD is just fine. It’s clear, it’s crisp and if you upconvert it, it looks good.”