High-def DVD combos don’t solve anything

Having trouble deciding between a Blu-ray player and HD-DVD? No? You’re more than happy with your $35 DVD player and couldn’t care less about next-gen format wars?

I’m with you there, but let’s just pretend. Two products have just been announced that are supposed to make us high-def-loving consumers breathe easy by removing the great burden of having to choose. LG is putting out a player that’ll handle both Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD discs, and Warner Brothers is releasing yet another format: Total HD, which will have Blu-ray and HD-DVD versions of a movie on the same disc. (Or one version that can play on both players, it’s not clear exactly how the technology works).

On first glance these do sound like solutions to the format war. But they’re not really going to resolve anything, and don’t answer the larger questions surrounding high-def DVDs any more than the other formats do.

The LG player sounds good until you see the price tag: It’ll cost $1,200 — an absurd price in an already absurdly priced consumer tech category. HD-DVD players start at $600 (though an HD-DVD add-on for Xbox 360 costs $200) and an upcoming Blu-ray player will be the cheapest (aside from the $500/$600 PlayStation 3) at $800. The hybrid player will suffer from the same cost problems as the other formats, only moreso.

The player costs more than both the others because it incorporates two new, expensive technologies into a third new, expensive technology. The price won’t drop until the prices of Blu-ray and HD-DVD drop, which will mostly happen when economies of scale kick in. But the combo player could actually hinder that process: If people don’t favor one format over the other when they buy movies, no clear victor will emerge from the software end; and if they buy the combo player then the prices of Blu-ray and HD-DVD players won’t drop as fast because no clear victor will emerge from the hardware end. Also, if LG doesn’t license the hybrid technology and is the only one making these combo players, then it won’t sell them quickly enough to take advantage of economies of scale for its own hardware.

The Total HD disc will face the same problems. Warner hasn’t officially announced the discs yet, but they’ll probably be more expensive than already overpriced Blu-ray and HD-DVD movies. The main reason Sony made such a big bet on Blu-ray, going so far as to threaten the PlayStation 3’s success, is that the company gets a cut of every Blu-ray disc sold. Same with HD-DVD’s creators. That’s what the format war is about. That means the price of a Total HD disc will theoretically incorporate the licensing fees of both Blu-ray and HD-DVD — plus a third licensing fee for the Total HD technology itself! Those costs will surely get passed along to consumers.

Total HD also won’t fix the selection problem. Certain movie studios are only releasing movies on Blu-ray, and others are exclusive to HD-DVD. Those studios aren’t likely to break their alliances by tacitly comprising and releasing their movies on a hybrid disc. Mostly what we’re likely to see on Total HD are movies already available in both formats.

The LG player and Total HD don’t bring us any closer to answering the bigger question: Does anyone care? It’s one thing to ask consumers to upgrade from vinyl to CD, or from VHS to DVD. It’s another to ask them to upgrade from one digital format that’s fairly cheap and plenty satisfactory to a more expensive one that they might have no need for.

There are also unanswered questions about the quality and economics of high-def DVDs. What will ensure that we’re getting our money’s worth? Not every high-def movie looks good; even some new ones don’t guarantee a huge improvement. A poor transfer of some old black-and-white movie will look just as poor in high-def, if not worse — why should we pay more for that? Will a regular Blu-ray version of Seven Samurai look better than a Criterion Collection transfer on plain old DVD? (Maybe Criterion owns the rights so there wouldn’t be a non-Criterion high-def release, but just for the sake of argument.) What about cartoons? Will the high-def versions of The Simpsons and South Park really look better, or will they just stuff the plain versions on fewer discs and charge more? Will ’80s TV shows look better in high def? If HBO can fit a full season of HD Sopranos on two high-def discs, will it still be able to charge $90 for it?

Maybe I’m just a luddite when it comes to high-definition entertainment. I’m sure in a few years everyone will have a high-def TV, and maybe high-def DVDs will seem more important then. But I haven’t heard a good accounting of these big issues, or even a good reason for the existence of high-def DVDs other than “slowing” DVD sales making the movie studios antsy to come up with another cash cow. Until more of that is resolved, hybrid discs and combo players just aren’t going to matter much.

— January 8, 2007

One response to “High-def DVD combos don’t solve anything

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