DVD Takes The Day
Supplementing high-def TV technology, DVD and Blu-ray players replaced VHS in short order
“Now you don’t have to miss ‘Kojak’ because you’re watching ‘Columbo’ (or vice versa),” crowed 1976 Sony Betamax ad copy that drew millions of people to buy a revolutionary new device called the videocassette recorder (VCR).
While its initial pull was home video recording, most VCR users didn’t know how the set the clocks on their decks and so couldn’t record a thing. The flashing “12:00” on the VCR became a national punchline. It was clear that Americans wanted VCRs so that they could rent and watch prerecorded movies, not record programs.
But as users started buying expensive 720- and 1080-line HDTVs, they gasped at the suddenly faded and grainy quality of 220-line VHS tapes and started to question their big-screen investments. Fortunately, HDTV makers and Hollywood studios had anticipated this situation and had been working on a high-quality digital VHS alternative.
When the first DVD players from Pioneer, Toshiba, and Sony hit the store shelves in February 1997, their compact, durable, and high-quality digital 480-line format quickly became a highly desirable replacement for fragile, low-resolution VHS cassettes. Within five years, half of all American households had a DVD player, and today more than 90 percent have at least one DVD or high-definition Blu-ray device.
But the gestation period of DVD may have been longer than its life as a product.
Video Disc Pretenders
Following the introduction of the compact disc in 1982, putting video on an optical disc was the next logical step. Considering the return on inventing a new video hardware format, no one was surprised when several video disc formats emerged.
While the CD was being developed, so was its sibling video version—the laserdisc, which produced a picture twice as good as VHS. The 12-inch disc, however, proved too large for consumers now used to five-inch CDs.
Competing with the laserdisc was a 12-inch product from RCA named the Capacitance Electronic Disc (CED), which used a physical needle to read information from a video disc, much like a record player—but the public was even less interested in CED than it was in the laserdisc. After spending millions and selling only a half million players, RCA dropped CED in 1984.
In the late 1980s several companies used MPEG 1 video compression on various five-inch video discs, including CD Video (CDV), which held five minutes of MPEG 1 compressed video and 25 minutes of digital audio. Philips promoted CD-Interactive (CD-i). But the road to what eventually became DVD didn’t open up until the higher-quality MPEG 2 compression appeared in November 1994.
Toshiba vs. Sony/Philips
By the mid-1990s, parallel MPEG 2–based CD-sized digital video disc efforts were under way. Toshiba, in partnership with Warner Brothers and supported by Matsushita, the parent company of Panasonic, was working on a format—officially Super Density (SD) but dubbed “Taz” after the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character from Warner’s Looney Toons. Meanwhile, Sony and Philips, the original developers of the CD, enlisted such computer industry giants as IBM, Apple, Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard to ensure that its MultiMedia Compact Disc (MMCD) format was PC-compatible.
With a digital videodisc format war looming, the two sides enlisted IBM to lead a multicompany committee to mediate a solution. After months of meeting and arm twisting by IBM for the two sides to merge their formats, it was announced at the fall COMDEX trade show in November 1995 that a new digital versatile disc (DVD) format had been agreed upon. It took another year for the studios and the hardware makers to wrangle out a content protection system to guard against illegal copying of movies committed to digital perfection.
After nearly 15 years of video-on-CD development, the first DVD decks from Toshiba and Panasonic went on sale finally in March 1997, along with the first prerecorded DVD titles.
High-Def Format War
When high-def TV launched in the late 1990s, it was obvious that both DVD hardware makers and Hollywood studios would develop a high-definition video disc format. In February 2002 Hitachi, LG, Matsushita, Pioneer, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, and Thomson announced a high-definition DVD format named Blu-ray. Less than a month later, the DVD Forum’s steering group approved the HD-DVD standard, codeveloped by Toshiba and NEC. To put it briefly, the same protagonists who had faced off on DVD just a few years before were coming back into the arena.
Without an objective and powerful mediator (such as IBM had been a decade earlier), however, the two high-def DVD camps couldn’t come to a merged format accord. So each released competing and incompatible hardware and movie titles in mid-2006. As expected, consumers were unwilling to invest in what might be a future obsolete format, and sales of both formats flagged. Blu-ray’s advantage in the number of supporting manufacturers finally won the day, and Toshiba abandoned HD-DVD in early 2008.
While Blu-ray won the high-def disc battle, it now is in a second contest with nonphysical formats, such as PC downloads, streaming, and video on demand. Instead of fighting, however, its hardware makers are selling players allowing consumers to access content from the Internet. But with so many virtual high-definition avenues available, will consumers continue to turn away from prepackaged physical media?
2000 DVD players sold: 8.5 million
2010 DVD/Blu-ray players sold: 23.5 million
Warren Lieberfarb (1947—)
Content is king, and without Warren Lieberfarb’s aggressive corralling of Hollywood studio support, DVD might have been a playback technology without anything to play back. As chief of Warner Home Video, the often rough-edged Lieberfarb pleaded, harangued, bargained, and bullied his fellow home theater executives to bring their movies to DVD. Variety dubbed him “the Father of DVD.” After stints at Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox, and Warner Brothers, Lieberfarb was put in charge of the latter studio’s small home video unit in the early 1980s.
During the next 18 years, he presided over the explosive growth of Warner Home Video and became an industry legend. When it looked as if DVD would be the next technological home video leap, he helped negotiate the unified-format compromise and then brokered the necessary deals to mollify Hollywood executives and encourage all the studios to release titles to make the format a success. Just five years after DVD made its debut, hardware and software revues topped $30 billion. His efforts were recognized in 1999 by an Emmy jointly awarded to him and to executives at Toshiba.