Blu-ray &Entertainment &WesleyTech Steven Kippel on 08 Sep 2007

The question of value

The question of value

Last night I took my wife out to a nice steak house and wine bar for dinner, as I do sometimes. It was a pleasant experience in the casual, but elegant, restaurant dining on a filet mignon with a glass of Pinot Noir from Sonoma, CA. Of course, if it wasn’t nice I would have been disappointed and I would have really missed that $160. But where am I going with this?

You know in the film 300 when Leonidas says to his men, “Tonight we dine in hell!” I always ask the question from the perspective of one of his soldiers: “We’re going to Sizzler?”

800px-tempranillowine.jpgIt is this gulf between a quality steak at $32 and a mediocre steak at $19 that I began to muse over. There must be many people who think a $19 steak from Sizzler is fantastic, or at the very least it’s adequate. There are others, like myself, who would never consider the over-cooked piece of left-over meat as worth $19. In this regard I relate to the food critic, Anton Ego, from the Pixar film Ratatouille when he exclaims, “I don’t like food, I love it. If I don’t love it, I don’t swallow.” In the same way, most people find their standard-definition DVD collection as more than adequate, thus they do not see the need to spend a good deal of money to upgrade (for surely everyone has DVD equipment they’re replacing) to Blu-ray and/or HD DVD.

It’s probably a good bet that the majority of the population have not had the pleasure of dining in an up-scale steak house. When you haven’t tried the best, you really have no benchmark to compare mediocre to. In fact, mediocre is all you know, but to you it is not mediocre, it is good. When something is good, why would you want to replace it? What benefit is there to pay thrice the price for the “same” steak you could get at Sizzler? Ah, but it is not the same! And, no, it doesn’t taste better just because you pay more.

We’re still in an era of standard-definition. Only about 55-million households in the U.S. have an HDTV, but over 130-million have DVD players. The sum of all HD DVD and Blu-ray players is still a fraction of the total HDTV install base, let alone the DVD market. This is the reason why Blu-ray and HD DVD will always remain a niche product.

Over two thirds of HDTV owners believe DVD is “high-definition.” This is probably because DVD did a bang-up job promoting the format’s higher-resolution than VHS a decade ago. Most HDTV owners also think anything they watch on their HD set is high-def. How they can think the picture they have at home is the same as the one they saw in the store is mind-boggling, but it’s still a problem the backers of both next-gen formats have to face. Before the market is going to buy into Blu-ray, they’re going to have to buy into high-def. Before they’re going to buy HD DVD, they’re going to have to know the benefits of high-def.

The promoters of both formats do know this, and that’s why you see so many ads for them on Discovery HD-Theater. It’s also why Panasonic and Disney embarked on their Magical Blu-ray Tour, and Panasonic is also setting off on their own bus tour promoting high-def and educating the public on high-def, plasma and Blu-ray Disc. Toshiba is also set to start airing HD DVD ads on Sunday Night Football on NBC (an NBC Universal company).

While I posit that both formats will remain niche, I also contend that the market will dictate a winner and will eventually support one format nearly exclusively, and that this will be a good thing. High-def is a growing market, and nearly every TV sold today is a high-def set. DirecTV and Dish Network are adding hundreds of high-def channels to their network. Adoption will grow and as the consumer is educated, they will be interested in high-def movies. Of course with the two formats, ennui will reign in some of these hopeful shoppers. However, some people will buy a player and be happy getting a limited selection in high-def while enjoying the rest on DVD. If the market favors one format, it will inevitably favor one format in the long run. There is historic precedent for this as the Betamax war lasted over a decade but did eventually end with one format as the standard. I feel the sooner this happens the better. One format will help the high-def market grow much faster as all the companies can focus all their attention on educating the market on high-def instead of trying to explain why they should chose whichever format they support.

If there isn’t a winner soon, video-on-demand just might win. I know a few people already who do not rent movies and aren’t interested in buying either next-gen format opting to use the free video-on-demand they get from Time Warner Cable. Their options are limited, of course, but they figure they only watch a few things a week and they can wait for new releases to hit the free channels. It’s possible Time Warner or Comcast could make their service unlimited and load up every title they can get the rights to and it would be like Netflix’s “Watch Now” feature, only in high-def. This is the most likely VOD type service as the biggest criticism of streaming content is the bandwidth issue. Of course if the cable providers can do it already, it’s not just a pipe dream.

I’m holding out hope that one of the next-gen optical formats will finally win this ridiculous war because a lot of people like collecting movies, and you don’t get the same satisfaction with a hard drive. Of course it’s hard to say if any format could match the pure joy of a nice Syrah.

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