The dirty secret of the high definition format war

Competition for the next generation of home-entertainment technology is heating up as industry giants begin taking sides between Blu-Ray Disc and HD-DVD. These are two incompatible high-definition formats set to rival one another as the eventual successor to conventional DVDs.

Among Hollywood film studios, Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks recently signed exclusive agreements to distribute their next line of discs on HD-DVD through early 2009. Paramount, an early supporter of Blu-Ray, had more recently begun producing films in both formats, and so its gravitation to the other side is significant. That move has more or less evened the score with Blu-Ray, which had previously been charging ahead of its competitor with support from the likes of Disney, Sony Pictures and Fox.

The present technological home-video pageant invites comparison to the rivalry of the early 1980s, when then-new VHS and Betamax videocassette formats were slugging it out for dominance. Although Beta was of superior quality (though hindered by a one-hour recording capacity), the cheaper VHS format finally prevailed and remained the format of choice until DVDs came into the picture in the 1990s.

Why did VHS prevail over Beta? Many industry analysts believe that war’s turning point came when the multi-million-dollar pornography industry cast its lot with VHS. By electing to churn out its sleaze en masse on the cheaper, lesser-quality format, porn helped make VHS the home-entertainment standard.

Porn still rules

Pornographers may be once again in a position to influence the outcome of the Blu-Ray/HD rivalry, and it’s a simple matter of being the bigger kid on the home-entertainment block. PC magazine has reported that the "adult film" industry in the United States last year raked in around US$12 billion in annual sales, rentals and cable charges; by way of comparison, the mainstream U.S. film industry grossed only $9 billion.

As Computerworld magazine noted a year ago, the porn business "has always been a fast leader when it comes to the use of new technology". In other words: As smut goes, so goes the world.

This time around, the actual video quality will not be at issue, as both formats are in glorious high-definition. What will differ will be their technical capabilities. Both, however, will be attractive to porn purveyors. Blu-Ray’s massive 50-gigabyte capacity will allow them to cram in 67 per cent more prurient bonus-feature imagery than an HD disc can hold, and it can be played on Sony’s latest gaming console, PlayStation 3. HD-DVD, while of smaller data capacity, is easier to produce and has an interactive element that allows users to download special features from the internet — which, for the smut peddlers, could link their titles ever more closely with the ubiquitous sleaze available on-line.

Sony’s sell-out

In the United States, pornographic filmmakers thus far reportedly have been favoring HD-DVD, and not just because of cost and simplicity.

Last January, it was widely reported that Sony, which developed Blu-Ray, had announced it would not allow its subsidiary disc-making company, Sony DADC, to press Blu-Ray Discs for the adult-entertainment industry. Sony and Disney both object to pornography, and Disney "maintains a policy against having its own movies replicated by any company working with adult-movie titles," reports the online Network World.

Although Sony is to be complimented for its moral position, the objection, apparently, is not absolute. Company spokespersons recently have said that while Sony or its subsidiaries will not manufacture the adult titles, it is open to offering porn filmmakers technical support on Blu-Ray production.

In fact, while Sony’s position (and Blu-Ray’s higher production costs) has made the porn market in the United States lean toward HD-DVD, the Japanese porn industry has actually embraced Blu-Ray after working out a back-door arrangement: Sony sold a Blu-Ray pressing machine to a Taiwanese company, which by August was mass-producing Blu-Ray Discs for the lucrative Japanese pornography market.

Sony, whose Betamax format lost out to VHS two decades ago, might be taking a more flexible posture in its partnerships this time around in an effort to avoid a similar marketing failure.

It may disturb many people to learn that pornography is playing such a key role in determining the future direction of our media technology. But that porn enjoys so much clout in the world of home-entertainment media is an indication of its sheer volume and market share -- thanks to the fact that sleaze is defended as a form of free expression.

Winners or losers?

Not all analysts believe one next-generation format will knock out the other. Some say they will coexist for quite some time, with films distributed in both formats that can run on inexpensive dual-format players. Others suggest both will give way to digital-delivery methods as broadband and fiber-optic internet technology continues to expand.

For those who believe that pornography is morally wrong, there is a tiny glimmer of hope that the advent of high-definition may actually hurt the porn industry. The New York Times reported earlier this year that the crispness of high-definition images makes porn actors’ and actresses’ physical imperfections — cellulite, pimples, birthmarks, razor burn, bulging breast implants — stand out more. If additional make-up, plastic surgery and stage lighting don’t compensate adequately for this concern, pornographic filmmakers might find that the high-definition era involves a bit too much reality for such a fantasy-driven industry.

Gerald Korson, former editor of Our Sunday Visitor newsweekly, is a freelance editor and writer in Fort Wayne, Indiana.


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