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Blu and you

Though Toshiba lost the fight over high-definition discs, movie fans didn't declare the winner.

February 20, 2008

The format war over high-definition movie discs ended Tuesday when Toshiba announced that it was abandoning HD DVD, the technology it championed virtually by itself in the consumer electronics industry. The move left Blu-ray as the only viable choice for high-definition discs, averting the kind of lingering battle that divided the videocassette market for more than a decade.

Oddly enough, movie fans played little part in declaring Blu-ray the winner. Most Hollywood studios backed one format or the other, not both, preventing people from comparing the formats side by side. And consumers were slow to buy stand-alone Blu-ray or HD DVD players, in part because conventional DVDs produce more than adequate pictures on small to midsized digital sets. The total number of stand-alone players sold was less than 1 million by December, by one studio's estimate, and the sales were divided roughly evenly between the two camps.

As the sales data suggested, the formats differed little in terms of picture and sound quality. The main distinctions from the consumer's perspective, at least in the short term, were that Blu-ray discs had more capacity and that HD DVD players were significantly cheaper. To studios, Blu-ray offered one other bonus: additional protections against unauthorized copying. But HD DVD discs cost less to produce, which meant higher profit margins.

What tipped the balance was Sony's Play-Station 3, a game console with a built-in Blu-ray player. Although PlayStation 3 owners weren't heavy movie buyers, the millions of consoles sold gave Blu-ray a seemingly insurmountable lead over HD DVD. The widening gap between Blu-ray and HD DVD disc sales, combined with the slowing sales of conventional DVDs, persuaded Warner Bros. -- the only major studio supporting both formats -- to throw its support behind Blu-ray exclusively in January. That decision led more retailers to give up on HD DVD, prompting Toshiba to raise the white flag.

The two formats could have coexisted if the studios had been willing to support them both, as they did with VHS and Betamax (and as most video-game developers do for the various incompatible game formats). But with such slender differences between the offerings, the public didn't have much to gain from an enduring split. Instead, the longer it took to resolve, the more consumers would buy equipment that would someday become an inert object. Movie fans largely avoided the pain of premature obsolescence, and they can thank PlayStation video gamers for that.

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