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Seeing trouble in HD

April 10, 2006

IF THEY WANT A GLIMPSE OF THEIR own future, Hollywood executives should take a peek at the latest year-end report from the Recording Industry Assn. of America. It's not a pretty picture. There, amid the statistics about declining CD sales and booming music downloads, are the grim numbers for the higher-fidelity formats once billed as the music industry's Next Big Thing. Their sluggish performance suggests what could happen to the two competing high-definition video formats that Hollywood will soon try to sell, HD-DVD and Blu-ray.

Here are the parallels. Like the advanced audio formats, the new video discs are the creation of consumer-electronics companies looking for new gear to sell, not artists pushing for a new medium. Just as the labels were split over their new formats, DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD (SACD), the studios have yet to rally behind either one of the high-definition formats.

DVD-Audio and SACD discs were mutually incompatible and required expensive new equipment to play; ditto for HD-DVD and Blu-ray. DVD-Audio and SACD were sold as a major improvement in sound quality over CDs, which were already good enough to satisfy most music fans; replace "sound" with "image," and ditto for HD-DVD and Blu-ray.

If the experience in audio is any measure, these are not the ingredients of a successful debut. The first DVD-Audio discs arrived late in 2000. In the years since then, shipments have fluttered between 300,000 and 500,000 discs -- less than 0.1% of conventional CD shipments. SACDs, which dribbled onto the market in 1999, reached 1.3 million units in 2003. Since then, shipments have plummeted to 500,000 units. Even Sony, which helped invent SACD, has shifted its energies toward another new format.

True, the video improvements promised by high-definition discs may be easier for most people to discern than were the audio improvements promised by higher-fidelity discs. The discs will display more than five times as much detail as a DVD.

To get the most out of all those extra pixels, however, viewers will need a much larger screen than most Americans have in their homes today -- say, a 50-inch-or-larger set.

Some studios are looking at other aspects besides picture quality to boost their high-definition offerings. Disney executives in particular have talked about using the expansive capacity of Blu-ray discs to pile on extra features. The two formats also have built-in interactivity and networking capabilities, which the studios would be wise to take advantage of. Otherwise, the new discs' fates could be summarized by one of Paramount's latest releases: "Failure to Launch."

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