The first volley of HD DVD and Blu-Ray players and discs has been launched, and the results are considerably less than stellar. First out of the chute was Toshiba’s $500 HD-A1 player and an assortment of HD DVD discs including Goodfellas and Swordfish. While reviews of the HD-A1 have found it to be not quite ready for prime time (bulky, very slow response, no 1080p resolution and an awful remote control,) the video quality of the discs is generally superb. On the Blu-Ray side, Samsung’s $1,000 BD-P1000 player has gotten excellent reviews, but the video quality of the available Blu-Ray discs (including The Terminator, The Fifth Element and Memento) ranges from bad to awful. The discs appear to have been mastered from worn theatrical prints of the films, scratches and all, rather than from negatives or digital masters.
This certainly isn’t the first time that a new format has had teething pains, but with all the time and money that the major consumer electronics companies and movie studios had to get ready for these launches, you’d think that they would have made a better showing. Particularly inexplicable is the poor quality of the first Blu-Ray discs. There’s absolutely no excuse for Sony and its partners to have come to market with crappy discs. What’s more, the discs are missing most of the special features and extras that the DVD versions of the discs come with. “Pay more, get less” is not a winning formula for Blu-Ray.
Last week, the North American HD DVD Promotional Group (Universal Studios Home Entertainment, Paramount Home Entertainment, Warner Home Video, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Toshiba and Microsoft) vowed to spend $150 million over the next six months promoting HD DVD. The Blu-Ray team started a lower-key campaign a few months ago, but Sony seems to be holding back until this fall, when it will release both its first Blu-Ray player and, a couple of months later, the PlayStation 3 with built-in Blu-Ray player.
The best gauge of success for the high-def formats will be how much shelf space major retailers give them. Right now, HD DVD and Blu-Ray aren’t competing against each other as much as they’re competing against DVDs. Many of the very early adopters are buying both players, but as the market expands beyond technophiles to the larger population of movie watchers, proponents of both formats will have to first convince consumers that the value of HD discs is enough to warrant an upgrade from DVDs, before each camp can start convincing them that their format is best.
The real test will be about six months from now, after the Christmas buying season is over. If retailers and rentailers substantially expand their displays, it means that customer demand for discs is increasing. If they don’t expand (or worse, cut back) their displays of HD DVD and/or Blu-Ray discs, it’ll be a sign that sales haven’t met expectations. And, if they move the players and discs from the front of the store to the back, it means that the party may already be over for one or both formats. The horses may have left the gate, but there’s no guarantee that either of them will reach the finish line.