Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Bitter Taste of Stupidity... 

Once upon a time, long long ago, home video players came out, in two different formats: VHS and Beta. And, for a while, players and tapes in both formats sold. But, eventually, Beta lost the war and VHS is the standard still sort of with us today, even though it went the way of cassette tape some time in the last two years. The thing was, back in the day, it was an either/or decision, and VCRs were not cheap. When VHS and Beta were fighting it out, it cost something like $1,200 in approximately 1980 dollars -- the equivalent of about three grand now -- to buy one of the machines, not to mention the added expense of building up a video library.

Eventually, one group of people, those who opted early for Beta (the arguably superior format in every way) got screwed. Sure, they had their machine and their tapes, but after a certain point, nothing new being produced.

And the bitter taste of that screwing stuck in people's minds. Remember DTS? No? That's because people would have had to invest in a format-specific home theatre sound system to play DTS DVDs, a system not compatible with Dolby 5.1. And remember the public response to DTS? A resounding Fuck You. And so it was born, lived and died out (unless on dual-compatibility discs) in a very short marketing cycle -- much shorter than the life-span of Beta.

And yet... the industry is setting itself up for the same crap all over again, as they try to decide on the next standard for DVDs, a Hi-Def format that'll pack more data on the disc. Trouble is, there are two standards in the works, they are not compatible with each other, and the two factions are both trying to rush their product to market.

Full disclosure: I've spent the better part of the last four years working for a major home Video/DVD company, so I know a bit about the thangs. Currently, there are four kinds of discs, all of which will work in your home player. DVD-5, so-named because it holds about five gigabytes of data, is single-sided and single layered -- about enough for a movie and some simple special features, like trailer, maybe an audio commentary. The studios reserve this one for product that didn't really make money in theatres, but which they want to squeak out for ancillary marketing nonetheless. Next up is DVD-9, single sided and dual-layered, holds 8.5 (close enough to 9 for jazz) gigabytes. These will be the more elaborately featured DVDs that you don't have to flip over, but the artwork on DVD-9s will always be a full-color label, and never a black and white etch. Older DVD-9s have the "Layer transition might trigger a slight pause" warning on the back of the cover; now an anachronism.

Next is the DVD-10; 9.4 gigs of data, double sided, single-layered. Yes, not much of an improvement over the capacity of a DVD-9, but rather common for doing the old "Full Screen" A/"Widescreen" B trick. And, again, often seen for family films that didn't make much in theatres, films for which the studios don't want to spend the extra bucks to have separate full screen/wide screen packaging.

Finally, there's DVD-18, which holds about 17 gig in a dual-sided, dual-layer format. This puppy can hold about eight hours of video, but it's also a bitch to manufacture, for technical reasons I won't go into here -- other than to say that the B-Layers of each side get awfully damn close to each other, in microscopic terms. You won't see DVD-18s except in cases of studios trying to cram 22 episode TV series into as few discs as possible, or big money-making, high prestige pictures that made a fortune in theatres and which have a lot of special features.

Again, the DVD player you have at home right now will read any and all of these formats, ranging from a single movie on a DVD-5 to sixteen episodes of your favorite sitcom on one DVD-18.

Now, do the math... in the upcoming HiDef wars, there are two formats. HD DVD will hold about 15 gig of data -- or, in other words, 83% of the current DVD-18. Blu-Ray will hold 25 gig, or 138% of same. And neither system is compatible with the other. You can't put a Blu-Ray in an HD machine, nor vice versa.

And, at the moment, the two competing consortiums have stopped talking to each other.

Now, first time around, when VHS and Beta came out, the consumers got screwed; at least the ones who went for the losing format did. This time around, it's going to be quite different.

Let me put it in simple terms for the people trying to invent the next DVD standard. If you come out with two standards, no one is going to buy either one. Period. Why not? Because nobody wants to get stuck with equipment and discs that will be useless in two years. And, face it, for the moment, we've got all we want. I've got two DVD players at home, two TVs, and a collection of about four hundred titles. (I've also got a VCR and about 150 tapes, although I rarely break down and watch that dated format.) I could give a rat's ass whether I can run out and buy things on Hi-Def because, y'know what? Unless Hi-Def or Blu-Ray discs come out at four bucks a shot, there's no reason at all for me to replace anything I already own. And I'm sure most DVD owners think the same. If they're serious collectors, they probably already own all the movies and TV shows they love to watch over and over.

Given the current crappy standard of Hollywood product, there's really no reason to buy any movie (with about three exceptions) released by the studios in the last two years.

But, anyway, this is my plea: will the folks trying to come up with the next DVD standard pull their heads out of their asses and settle on one format before they go to market? Because, otherwise, they're not going to sell a thing. And would they please, this time, settle on the better format, Blu-Ray? And, perhaps, would they make the new players totally backward compatible?

If they do none of these things, they're in for a nasty surprise. Because consumers of 2005 are much more savvy than consumers of 1980. You only have to look at the history of HDTV for proof of that. Once upon a time, there were two competing HDTV formats in the works. In fact, we were supposed to have converted to HDTV-only about four years ago. It didn't happen because no one was going to upgrade while there was even the slightest possibility that their choice would be crap in six months. It wasn't until HDTV settled on one format that the changeover finally started to occur. Memo to Hollywood: I have yet to upgrade to HDTV, and I don't think I'm going to. And if my set won't tune in broadcast channels in a year, so what? Broadcast TV is crap anyway.

But, I do digress. In the 80s, Beta owners came in for a nasty surprise. That screwing is still floating around in the memesphere, and, in the 21st Century, it won't be the consumers who get the surprise, if the DVD Format Folk can't get their shit together.

One final side-note. A certain studio tried to come out with a new format last spring, the Mini-DVD. It was a three-inch disc that worked in special players, aimed at the kiddie market. The movies were always full screen, and a two hour feature would take three discs. It launched. No one bit. It died. Portents of things to come, if we end up with dueling formats released. Just a friendly reminder.

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