A year ago at the Consumer Electronics Show, Blu-ray was taking its victory lap as the winner of the hi-def home movie format war. But in the intervening year skeptics have argued that downloading and streaming movies may prematurely end Blu-ray’s reign. Home Theater Magazine editor Shane Buettner explains the stakes for movie lovers.
BOB GARFIELD: When the war began a few years back over the format for high-definition DVDs, it felt like a reenactment of the historic battle between VHS and Betamax. This time it was Blu-ray versus HD DVD. And last year at the annual International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Blu-ray was declared the winner. Yet despite strong sales of the Dark Knight disc and Blu-ray players, there’s a chorus of naysayers. Many tech watchers see Blu-ray facing a threat from movies that stream directly over the Internet to your TV, rendering the Blu-ray disc unnecessary. Last year we talked to Shane Buettner at the Consumer Electronics Show. He’s a writer and editor for Home Theater Magazine and he joins us once again to explain what’s happened since Blu-ray’s victory lap last year.
SHANE BUETTNER: I think what has really happened is that people are expecting a little too much too quickly with respect to Blu-ray, and they see these other ways of consuming media, whether it be streaming or downloads, as encroaching on that territory.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so prices are down. That’s good. And the number of titles available via Blu-ray is going up. That’s good. But the Internet delivery is making a bit of a charge. Is that categorically going to be the future of watching hi-def movies at home?
SHANE BUETTNER: Personally, I think that the jury is very much out on that. I think that what a lot of people are doing is they're making assumptions about Blu-ray’s future based on what they saw happen in the music download industry. It’s unequivocal at this point – downloaded MP3s won that particular format war. Convenience absolutely trumped quality in the minds of most consumers. I think the thing that people really need to keep in mind is that movies, they're much different than music. Music downloads are very fast, very cheap, very convenient. When you’re talking about downloading a 112-kilobit-per-second MP3 song, that takes just a few seconds on a decent broadband connection. That’s a much different thing than either streaming or certainly even downloading a movie experience.
BOB GARFIELD: So in 2009, how does one stream or download a film? What is the mechanism and who are the sources for doing this?
SHANE BUETTNER: I would say right now that Netflix is really leading the charge in a major way. They are making a number of strong deals. LG and Samsung both have Blu-ray players that enable Netflix streaming. The Xbox 360 enables Netflix streaming, so they're definitely in something of a commanding position in that space right now. But you really need a fast broadband connection to get something even approaching DVD quality, let alone high definition.
BOB GARFIELD: And that’s the limiting factor, is it not? Unless more Americans have access to very high-speed broadband, streaming or downloaded movies overtaking physical media like Blu-ray, it’s just impossible for the time being.
SHANE BUETTNER: I should probably just state up front I don't really share the gloom-and-doom view of Blu-ray’s future that I'm reading from some pundits in the industry. I think people, you know, they not only want success now, they want it to be dramatic and overwhelming and they want it to happen overnight. The other day I was reading through some industry news and there was this statistic there that I found that was very interesting. It mentioned the fact that rental revenue in home video, DVD did not surpass the VHS tape until 2003. I think that puts it at about six years after DVD’s introduction before it took over the rental market, for example. I think people are expecting a little bit too much too soon in the shape of Blu-ray, and I think that all the sales indicators and everything else – you know, a big title like The Dark Knight sell over a million copies in one week in the U.S. alone – I think we're seeing indicators that people are buying Blu-Ray, and they're getting it. I would like some of the people who think that downloads are about to take over the world in the movie world, or streaming, for example, I'd like to see somebody do a poll of the average guy on the street and see how many of those guys can tell you the difference between Hulu and Vudu.
BOB GARFIELD: So what you’re suggesting is that while Blu-ray is probably an interim technology, that interim could last a long time and, I guess, generate many billions of dollars, no?
SHANE BUETTNER: Yeah, I absolutely believe that. I think the thing that I would look at, again, is iTunes has figured out as much of the downloading and streaming side of the business as anybody has. You know, you don't see them standing up on the rooftops and beating their chest about the numbers they've done on movie downloads, and that’s because the numbers simply aren't there.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Shane, thank you very much.
SHANE BUETTNER: Sure. I appreciate it.
BOB GARFIELD: Shane Buettner is editor of Home Theater Magazine.