Commentary: Living in Fear of the Niche

Posted Fri Nov 9, 2007 at 01:30 PM PST by

Editor's Note: A long-time movie buff and video collector from laserdisc to DVD and beyond, Joshua Zyber is a veteran disc reviewer, and an enthusiastic supporter of all things High Definition. In his twice-monthly High-Def Digest column, Josh discusses a broad range of topics of interest to other early adopters.

By Joshua Zyber

It should go without saying that we here at High-Def Digest believe that High Definition, in one form or another, is the way of the future. I have no doubt that some day our current classification of "HDTV" will be the minimum quality standard for all television broadcasts and home video products. Infomercials, religious programming, high school kids airing their homemade wrestling videos on obscure Public Access stations in the middle of the night -- everything will be High Definition. As technology moves forward, progress is inevitable. When that time comes, we'll all look back at Standard Definition NTSC or PAL with a sense of nostalgia and perhaps a twinge of embarrassment, the way we think of Black & White TVs now. Our grandkids will have no frame of reference when we tell them stories about watching television in the olden days at the turn of the century. How quaint it will all seem.

But we're not there yet, and it's going to be a while.

In the meantime, we have to deal with the High Definition format war between Blu-ray and HD DVD, each video disc format vying to establish itself as the next-generation successor to DVD. The fastest-growing, most popular consumer electronic product in history has been a tough act to follow, and the competition between these two adversaries has generated an enormous amount of corporate hype, controversy, and bitter infighting, all of which has spread right to the consumer sector. Not only do we have executives from multi-national electronics corporations and major Hollywood movie studios sniping at each other in tersely-worded press releases, now even the public has gotten involved, picking sides like fans of rival sports teams -- cheering on their favorite, organizing web campaigns to proselytize its benefits, and attacking anyone with an opposing viewpoint. It's not enough to buy your favorite movies in High Definition; you have to buy them on the right High Definition disc type. The fact that both formats are virtually identical in terms of quality and features doesn't seem to matter. If you're not a soldier out there fighting for your side in the format war, you must be the enemy.

As far as I'm concerned, the whole thing seems pretty silly. At the end of the day, I just want to watch movies in High Definition. Naturally, it would probably make life a lot easier and less confusing for everyone if all titles could be watched on a single format, but it didn't work out that way. As a result, I bought players of both types so that I can keep up with the broadest selection of content, and I don't regret it for a minute. So long as the movies keep coming, I'm glad to have both. To look at it a different way, the format war has actually been a tremendous benefit to consumers, forcing both sides to increase quality and drive down prices to stay competitive with one another. Imagine where we might be right now if one side had rolled over and played dead at the start of all this; we'd be stuck watching sub-par quality software on players starting at $1,500 MSRP, with nothing pushing that status to change.

Nonetheless, if you listen to the rhetoric, the format war has brought nothing but misery and suffering, and if dragged out any further can only serve to destroy our dreams of a High Definition future. The argument goes something like this: Consumers are so confused by the format war and afraid of picking the "losing" side that they won't buy either one until the whole mess is sorted out. If they don't buy either one, both sides lose, companies stop making them, and High Definition home video dies out entirely. This conclusion seems to be supported by the slow adoption rates both formats are currently facing, and it kind of sounds logical, doesn't it?

The problem is that this argument just doesn't ring true. While the format war has undoubtedly created some measure of concern and reluctance in the marketplace, it is simply not the biggest impediment to High Definition adoption. The real roadblock is consumer apathy. By and large, most people out there are happy with their DVD players, and don't understand all the fuss about High Definition. A significant number of them believe that DVDs are already High Definition and have no concept of why they should buy a new player for discs in different packaging. Yes, it's true that sales of HDTVs have soared over the last few years, but that has more to do with the size of the sets than anything else. Most people are impressed by a big screen, not the resolution or picture quality.

Let me relay a little story here. Recently, my wife and I were visiting some friends who'd bought a new plasma TV and were eager to show it off to us. Their 10 year-old son insisted that we watch 'Pirates of the Caribbean' on DVD with them. The set was a fairly large screen, certainly bigger than anything they'd ever owned before. However, they had not done anything that could remotely be called "calibration" with it. The brightness level was cranked up so high that there was no such thing as the color black on screen, just a milky gray. They'd only had the set for a few months and already developed burn-in marks from the letterbox bars on DVDs, and for some reason the picture pulsed every so often, filling the whole screen with nasty pixelation artifacts. As if that weren't enough, they had their DVD player connected by Composite Video cable, and set for 4:3 aspect ratio mode, so the 2.35:1 movie image on 'Pirates' was squished down into a tiny strip in the middle of the screen.

As a dyed-in-the-wool videophile, I naturally found the whole situation appalling, but as the movie started my wife gave me a dirty look that said, "Not one word. Keep your mouth shut and pretend to enjoy yourself!" Of course, she was right. Our friends were so proud of their new purchase that it would have been unbearably rude of me to criticize. After the seemingly-endless movie, I politely asked to use the DVD player remote for a minute to "tweak" a setting for them, during which I mercifully fixed the aspect ratio setting to 16:9 mode. I quickly checked a scene to verify that the change took, only to be greeted with the response that, "We don't see any difference." Indeed, they never noticed that there was any problem before, and were perfectly happy with the squished, stretched, and obviously distorted picture they'd been watching.

Is there a home theater fan reading this without a similar story? We've all faced it, the blank stare of indifference and the assumption that so long as the TV screen is big that everything on it must be High Definition. Out there in the general populace, there's no great consternation about the HD format war, because the vast majority of people are totally oblivious to it. They don't know the difference between Blu-ray and HD DVD, couldn't tell you what either one offers over standard DVD, and just plain don't care in any case. DVD is perfectly satisfying for them. High Definition is not a priority in their lives, and one side "winning" the format war is not going to drive them to buy it any more than they are now.

It's time to face the fact that we in the High Definition community are a specialized niche market. And honestly, there's nothing wrong with that. I can't tell you the number of times I've heard the complaint that one of these formats had better win quickly and take over the DVD market, or we'll be faced with just another Laserdisc situation all over again. The comment amuses me. Sure, Laserdisc was a niche format that never achieved mass market penetration in its day, but it also lasted for over 20 years as the highest quality home video format available at the time, and saw every major new movie released on it. I wish both Blu-ray and HD DVD that much success.

We've already overcome the biggest obstacle that made movie collecting on Laserdisc so difficult, its high prices. Thanks to the format war, we now have reasonably priced hardware and software on both HD DVD and Blu-ray. With Blu-ray players moving down to the $399 range and HD DVD players below $199, we can buy one of each for less than the price of a decent Laserdisc player back in the day. Although it can be argued that $600 is a lot of money in many aspects of life, the home theater hobby has never been cheap. I have a feeling that most reading this article spent more than that (perhaps significantly more) on their surround sound receiver or speakers.

Outside the confines of the boardrooms of the corporations making these products, what difference does it make to the rest of us as consumers whether these formats achieve mass market penetration? Is the fear that both formats will die if they don't take over from DVD? Even within the movie studios releasing these discs, I doubt anyone expects or wants High-Def media to fully replace DVD. The DVD format is cheap to produce and brings in a lot of money. These days, most movies earn more on DVD than they do in theaters. Why would anyone want to kill that cash cow? No, what the studios really want from High Definition is to supplement DVD income, not to merely replace it. Two revenue streams are better than one. The adoption rates for both Blu-ray and HD DVD have been slow, but they are growing, and it's perfectly conceivable that both will eventually be profitable enough to satisfy the movie studio accountants as to the viability of their investments.

The video game market has survived and thrived for many years despite the presence of multiple formats. Why can't the High Definition market do the same? Peaceful coexistence should be possible. The split in studio support means that neither format will have 100% of movies that any given customer may want, but by the same token each video game console has its own highly-desirable exclusive titles. Hard core gamers buy every console, while casual gamers look at the selection available and pick the format that has more titles appealing to their taste. The same rationale applies here. If you need to have every movie in High Definition, it will be worth your time to buy both Blu-ray and HD DVD players. If that's not an option, look through the following lists and decide which one offers more of what you personally like:

Blu-ray Historical Release List
Blu-ray Upcoming Release List

HD DVD Historical Release List
HD DVD Upcoming Release List

Both formats already have hundreds of titles available, across a wide variety of genres: drama, comedy, action, family, classics, science fiction, Western, horror, and everything in between, with plenty more aggressively slated for future release. Even if you can't necessarily get every single movie you want on one format, surely no matter which one you pick will supply plenty of content to keep you busy. And if that's just not satisfying enough, what's the alternative? Stick with regular DVD and stay limited to blurry Standard Definition forever? Where's the benefit in that?

Loudmouth pundits will whine that the format war has been a miserable disaster that will doom High Definition to remain a niche, a scenario they want you to fear as the worst of all possible outcomes. That's a load of bunk and I don't buy it for a second. If the movies keep coming at reasonable prices (those who feel High-Def media prices are unreasonable clearly never bought a $125 Laserdisc "Special Edition"), why should anyone not specifically employed by one of these companies be upset that their format is just a niche? These products are meant to be enjoyed, not to have their weekly sales statistics scrutinized with ruthless obsession. Are we so insecure that we need mainstream popularity to validate our hobby? Are we in this because we love movies, or because we want to boast of owning the latest "hot" new toy?

I'm in it for the movies, in the best quality I can get them. I believe that High Definition is the future, that it will eventually take over as the default standard for all home video. But that time hasn't come yet, and for now we're in a niche market. Mass popularity or not, High Definition quality is here right now. It's available, it's affordable, and I'll gladly take it on whichever formats give it to me.

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