If you’ve seen Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, you’ve heard of Lester Bangs. Possibly the weirdest major rock critic of all time, Bangs was a guy who wrote from a place so deep in his own head and heart that it’s almost unfathomable that his work proved as resonant as it did. His rumination on Elvis’s death (not the ugly way The King died, but the world he left behind, and popular culture’s journey from pre-Elvis 1955 to post-Elvis 1977), contains a typically insightful Bangs line:
We’ll never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis.
Of course, not everyone agreed on Elvis. His initial success was declaimed as a harbinger of the decline of American youth and civilization as we knew it, primarily by mainstream Americans (read: segregationists) who believed that black and white kids dancing to the same music would take this country to terrifying new places. But that was part of Bangs’s point: Elvis’s music, itself an amalgam of blues, country, black and white gospel, Dean Martin pop, and newer hybrids such as R & B and rockabilly, created a place where rivers met. This wasn’t Elvis’s agenda; it’s just the effect his music had. And it wasn’t Elvis’s death that caused it all to fall apart by 1977—a time when black and white kids were no longer dancing to the same music, affirmative action was getting crushed in the courts, and busing was causing riots in American cities—but it certainly marked a point in time when the confluence Elvis helped create had dried up into a canyon.
As we approach our first NAB following the demise of HD DVD, I’m reminded of Bangs’s Elvis eulogy as I look at the now and future state of video delivery. With apologies to Toshiba, I’m glad HD DVD is gone. The so-called "format war," occasioned by the persistence of two high-capacity would-be DVD successors, wasn’t good for anyone who wanted to see a new optical disc medium adopted on a grand scale. Though in one sense HD DVD lasted much longer than I expected it to in 2006, it also collapsed more quickly than I would have predicted following CES 2008, when Warner Bros. declared its allegiance to Blu-ray Disc. But in the fast-moving world of technology, that’s all history now; Blu-ray won, and it was good. But what did Blu-ray actually win?
As much as an optical disc format can be said to win the hearts and minds of the general populace, that’s exactly what DVD did around the turn of this century. It took a few years, and during those few years the DVD industry tried a number of unsuccessful gimmicks to push DVD into the mainstream, such as internet connectivity and various "interactive" quasi-gaming machines like Nuon. We also had Divx, an odd rental-only disc that became a coaster if you didn’t re-rent it after a couple days. Divx was such a disaster that some clever guys decided to freeze in time an early version of MPEG-4 and give it the same name, in the process creating a format that gained instant popularity for illegal movie downloads—and is now supported by sixnew Blu-ray players.
False starts notwithstanding, DVD became a rousing success. VHS declined and nearly disappeared, and DVD took its place. When desktop DVD burning and duplication took hold, DVD became a dominant, all-purpose media delivery format. Which is exactly what Blu-ray Disc will become now that HD DVD is gone, right?
Wrong. Blu-ray Disc will do very well; analysts say we'll see 29 million players installed, worldwide, by the end of the year. Most new TVs purchased these days are HD-capable, the long-promised DTV switch is coming soon, desktop BD recording is becoming almost practical for anyone delivering video professionally. Blu-ray video looks fabulous, and it fits neatly into the emerging HD entertainment world.
So why aren’t we crowning a new world champion? Well, we could do that, but it would be about as meaningful as declaring a champion in today’s boxing world, with its endless assortment of "world champion" belts.
What’s standing between Blu-ray Disc and world domination? First is DVD itself. It’s not HD, but it’s digital, navigable, recordable, durable, and ubiquitous. I just don’t see the world leaving DVD behind the way it did VHS.
But DVD is static. The bigger impediments to Blu-ray’s quest for mass mindshare are moving targets, nondisc digital contenders that will become more formidable over time. One is streamed video, but the bigger threat is downloaded video that’s synced and transferred to iPod or other PMPs or to set-top boxes such as Apple TV or Xbox 360. The ascendance of DRM-protected DVD digital downloads will play a role here too.
For now, not much of the video you’ll stream or download will look as good as HD on Blu-ray Disc, and little of it will be watched in the comfort of the living room. But if we learned one thing from MP3, it’s that quality isn’t as important as convenience—and convenience means everything from cheap (or free), flexible, and immediate acquisition to portability and disposability.
So, if Blu-ray isn’t going to succeed DVD as the video delivery king, what is? Digital downloads? Streaming? Syncable set-tops? Alternate optical formats such as VMD, or holographic media? The answer is none of the above. As far as media delivery is concerned, it may be quite a long time before we agree on anything as we agreed on DVD. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Stephen Nathans-Kelly (stephen.nathans at infotoday.com) is editor-in-chief of EventDV and EMedialive.com and proprietor of FirstLookBooks, a book review blog.