So, Warner Brothers is officially dropping HD-DVD for Blu-ray. Does anyone really care? Are there really people in this complex, politically unsound world really worrying about who wins the so-called format wars? Is this a battle really worth focusing on? For some websites, the victor has been crowned and all that remains is the gathering of the spoils. For others, the decision to support/not support publicly the triumph of topaz has been akin to playing pundit and announcing that Hillary Clinton has clinched the Democratic Nomination (how’s that predication working out, huh?). Frankly, anything that costs thousands of dollars to implement and asks fans to reconfigure their already bloated digital collection should have some manner of referee - and smug, know it all bloggers and Netheads are the wrong ones to make the call.
Clearly, HD-DVD is on the ropes. There are only three studios - Universal, Paramount, and Dreamworks - that are exclusively in their camp, and with this latest defection, the support from this trio is already fading. Rumors have these companies already looking for Blu-ray mastering houses, and events sponsored by HD-DVD champions Toshiba and Microsoft at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show have mysteriously been cancelled. Over the last couple of days, industry wannabes like The Digital Bits and Ain’t It Cool News have jumped on the premature bandwagon, perhaps trying to guarantee a steady stream of reviewable product come screener request time. Whatever the case, the race has been called before the final laps - or even before the spectators have arrived at the track.
For many outside the sphere of the cinephile or the obsessive, the clashing format fiasco has been much ado about nothing. This has always been a tech geek toss up, an unnecessary advancement into an area few are ready to broach. Sure, the government has seen fit to mandate a conversion to high definition in 2009, but with cable and satellite providing a seemingly unlimited supply of movies, sporting events, and pay per view offerings in the new medium, the need for a thousand dollar DVD upgrade seems pointless. Even worse, those who bit during recent HD specials (Wal-Mart’s $100 player, Amazon.com’s Christmas machine/movies deal) must be feeling awful foolish right now - not immediate IPhone adapter dumb, but raked over the consumer coals nonetheless.
While most people will tell you they waited on adopting one of the two formats as a cautionary move, the truth is that no one is antsy about replacing their dead VHS demanded aluminum discs. CDs stayed around for decades before something other than fancy gimmickry gave them the shaft (read: the MP3). Laserdiscs were never popular because of their bulky, blue blood aura. All the new format can offer right now is an improved picture and some title exclusives. And for a family pinching pennies, wondering if they are going to lose their home to a soft, self-destructive mortgage market and compounding credit crunch, making sure the household has the latest high tech toy seems like complete fad gadgetry. For now, HD remains an elitist conceit, a must-have item for those already dissatisfied with DVD.
Somehow, this feels like the biggest scam ever perpetrated on the home theater domain. Walk into any Best Buy or Target and you’ll see massive displays of Hi-Def televisions, the latest blockbuster or CGI kiddie fare flashing mindlessly across the impressive screens. Granted, the image doesn’t look that amazing smashed up against a dozen other examples of the concept, but early accepters have sworn by the clarity, detail, and overall feeling of theatrical recreation. Where the difference is really obvious is in the HD-TV signal. Even on a standard set, one glimpse of the brilliant picture presented on many cable and satellite services should have consumers running to the local B&M for a quick boob tube revamp.
Yet the ‘hurry hurry’ push for equally impressive home video seems like a rush to unrealistic judgment. Companies seem to forget that price and ease of adaptation are what made sell-though possible in the first place. When VCRs came out in the ‘70s, the cost prohibitive nature of the technology, and the medium (Prerecorded VHS movies cost over $100) held many back. But then the alternative nature of the device - its ability to RECORD - gave people a reason to reconsider. Then, after a decade of careful market manipulation and controls, the notion of making titles cheap and machines even cheaper guaranteed quick and all encompassing acceptance.
It was the same strategy used by DVD. Sure, initial players were expensive, and available movies limited, but after a brief period of time (and a substantial improvement in audio and video), demand drove down the price. Again, cost and improved picture quality compensated for the lack of other available bells and whistles, and the digital revolution was in full swing. HD has failed to follow suit. If the makers of the slowly sinking format really wanted to beat old Blu, it could do so at the cash register. Right now, prices hover between $299 to $799. Here’s an idea - offer a $90 machine, a $400 TV set, and $10 discs. Make the Wal-Mart shopper sit up and take notice - after all, they’re the ones who will drive this mandated switchover in the long run.
Of course, the competition has the long in development Playstation 3 on their side, guaranteeing that in many households, the whiny needs of a spoiled bratling will give Blu-ray an automatic edge. It was a strategy that almost chomped them in the bitrate when DVD was attached to the Playstation 2. Compared to the cost, many felt they were getting a second rate machine at an incredibly high end price - and with the current tech criticisms of 3’s incorporated format, it seems like lightning is striking twice. Still, the biggest barrier to a VHS to DVD style tidal wave is wealth. Asking your average shopper to casually toss out $1000 total (and in most cases, much, much more) to see a little more detail in Captain Jack Sparrow’s dreadlocks seems like a leap. And since TV sets are an uncontrollable part of the bargain, the format seems handcuffed.
In fact, the whole High Definition argument can be likened to asking lovers of McDonalds to spend three times as much at Five Brothers for what they perceive as the same thing. Granted, it’s clearly not, but to members of a rat race bleary constituent, it sure FEELS the same. Unlike DVD, which saw a must own title like The Matrix make the leap seem compulsory, HD/Blu-ray has yet to find such an offering. The problem, of course, comes outside the merchandise. If Pixar decides that Wall-E, its upcoming Summer blockbuster, should become Disney’s first Blu-ray exclusive release, it’s setting itself up for disaster. Aside from the shouting match over giving old format fans a chance at owning it, the appearance of implied elitism will turn the public off. After all, movies are still a mainstream medium, last time anyone checked.
So as of today, no one really cares that Warners is jumping the HD ship (and Paramount, supposedly, is looking to as well). Blu-ray may win the day, and the decision, for most consumers, but it will be a long, painful process before the switch over is successful (if it ever is). Microsoft, smarting from the announcement, said it really doesn’t care if HD dies - people will be using a download technology (probably an Internet adapted box on their TV) to bring the highest quality image right into their living room. Discs will be dead. Of course, someone said the same thing about CDs, and we still have their tactile pleasures. Instead of pushing technology on people, companies should really listen to what they want. Until they do, a studio switch means nothing - except to those eager to make their messageboard pronouncements. Everyone else will just wait and see.