I had a long schmooze with Warner Home Video’s Steve Nickerson at the CES. He’s been shepherding Warner’s Switzerland- like support of both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray high definition disc formats. And he’s now rallying for studios and consumers to get behind Warner’s dual-sided, dual- format THD – total high definition disc – which will come to market in the second half of the year.
Nickerson’s attitude is that neither format is going to blow the other out of the water in the foreseeable future, if ever. Why? The times have changed. Single formats no longer rule the marketplace. Software companies, retailers and consumers are all used to dealing with multiple versions of the same content. A video game might come out on, 6, 7, even 8 different home and portable formats. We’re now into purchasing music on-line in different codecs, on our cell phone, with our satellite radio, as well as on old school CD, high end SACD and DVD-A and even the remarkably resilient vinyl LP. So why can’t a “mere” two high def disc formats coexist?
Uh, you been to a big box retail store lately? There’s always a major squeeze play going on there, a competitive fight for floor space. The ever topical DVD business remains a big lure and is holding its own (“flat sales are the new ‘up’” ). So that product section is safe in the Best Buys and Circuit Citys of the world. But to carve out room for yet two more video disc formats, something else may have to “give.”
Nickerson’s analogy to multi-system game format releases discounts the fact that even an Electronic Arts or Activision will only pull off that systems-blanketing stunt with a handful of high profile titles – like Madden NFL or the multiple game adaptations of Disney/Pixar’s “Cars.” And the total universe of really hot video game titles still remains fairly uniform, containable in a pretty small section.
In video, we’ve been spoiled rotten. We want everything on DVD, and the studios are kindly disposed to give it to us. Neflix says its active list of titles – that is, DVDs that are constantly in circulation – now numbers around 10,000 movies, concert videos and TV series!
The HD-DVD and Blu-Ray camps aren’t going to get inventory anywhere near that level this year. Blu- Ray’s studio supporters project availability of more than 300 new titles by December, in addition to the 200 or so currently on shelves. HD-DVD , which started earlier but has fewer studios in its corner, also boasts around 200 titles at the moment, and will at least double that number, by year’s end. So that’s still only 900 to a thousand SKUs for retailers to inventory.
But looking down the road a couple years, it’s not hard to project that stores carrying redundant HD discs will eventually have to cap off their selections, becoming discriminating about what they carry. That catalogue limitation will reduce the new formats’ ultimate appeal to the gotta-have-‘em-all collectors, and will slow the mass public’s migration from standard to high definition discs.
So yes, the double sided THD disc is a logical solution to the inventory crunch. But who says the studios are going to be logical about supporting this? (Even better would have been a triple format disc – containing HD-DVD and Blu-Ray layers on one side, standard DVD on the other side. Warner has a patent on that technology, too, but opted for the simpler flipper ‘cause it’s easier to make and allows dual -layer, higher capacity HD versions on both sides.)
Paramount, also releasing in both formats, is a good candidate to support THD alongside Warner Home Video labels (including HBO and New Line.) But Bu-Ray backer Sony, which owns a huge percentage of Hollywood’s film archives, ain’t gonna go along with a dual-sided disc that lends credibility to and puts money in the pocket of HD-DVD inventor Toshiba and prime supporter Microsoft.
The irony is that Sony may inadvertently deal a blow to the profitability of its music division, if stores wind up shrinking their CD section further to make more room for the feuding format video discs.
Speaking as a music lover, that would really be a pisser.