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4 Studios to Offer Protected Videotapes in HD Format

Digital: Titles will use a copy-protection technology to guard against piracy of high-definition tapes.

January 30, 2002|JON HEALEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Four Hollywood studios plan to release their first high-definition videotapes this year--the first time major films will be available in such a richly detailed, high-quality format.

To overcome their piracy fears, however, the studios back a copy-protection scheme with little support from consumer-electronics manufacturers. Meanwhile, several competing Hollywood studios said they don't plan to release any high-definition videotapes, setting the stage for a new battle over incompatible forms of prerecorded video.

Artisan Entertainment, DreamWorks SKG, Twentieth Century Fox and Universal Studios are expected to announce today their support for D-VHS, a digital videotape technology developed by Japanese consumer-electronics giant JVC. To guard against piracy, their tapes will use D-Theater, a D-VHS feature also developed by JVC.

The companies don't plan a major push into D-VHS, in part because so few D-VHS players are available. Only two manufacturers sell D-VHS machines in the United States, and only the JVC units support D-Theater.

The four studios' embrace of D-Theater also has ominous overtones for consumers who've already purchased expensive high-definition TV sets. Several executives said Hollywood is pressuring consumer-electronics companies to equip D-VHS machines only with copy-protected digital connections that won't work with most HDTV sets on the market today.

Executives at three other major film studios and several consumer-electronics companies said they had no plans for D-VHS movies or players. Instead, many companies are holding off until a high-definition version of DVD is perfected in a few years.

"Basically, we think this [D-VHS] format is obsolete before it even gets to market," said Marsha King, a business-development executive at Warner Home Video.

Added Ben Feingold, president of the digital studios division within Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, "It's a really dumb idea."

Advocates of D-VHS say that the picture quality is three to four times better than today's DVDs. The home-theater enthusiasts who've invested in high-definition televisions want high-definition movies, and D-VHS makes that possible today.

"We've always been a supporter of any new technology that moves the industry forward," said Steve Beeks, president of Artisan Family Home Entertainment. "We're talking about seeding the industry with a decent but relatively small base of software to give the hardware a chance to gain a foothold in the marketplace."

Kelley Avery, head of worldwide home entertainment for DreamWorks, noted that D-VHS is the only technology available to consumers for high-definition videos. "Our hope is that, as the number of high-definition television households increase, people will be looking for pre-recorded high-definition content and will be looking for these machines."

The lack of pre-recorded programs has been a stumbling block for HDTV, which can offer richly detailed pictures and cinematic sound. But with only 2 million homes with HDTV sets, the audience for high-definition programming is too small to justify much of an investment by the studios.

Artisan, DreamWorks, Fox and Universal offered no specific product plans, prices or release dates for their D-VHS tapes.

Instead, executives said they'd be reserving the D-VHS format for effects-laden films that appeal to consumers with high-end home theaters.

"The ideal pictures for them," said Craig Kornblau, president of Universal Studios Home Video, "would be those of significant size and scope.... Pictures that show what the home theater, and D-VHS, can do."

"There is absolutely a consumer need for this. Consumers want this badly," Kornblau said. But the studios wouldn't have agreed to the D-VHS format, he said, without D-Theater, which offers "the highest level of protection we've seen."

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