MediaLog MediaBrief: "USA Today" Wonders Which Media You Would Choose Now

"Not Your Father's Television" Dept.--Today the website for "USA Today" featured a tech article entitled "If you wanted to watch 'Superman,' which media would you choose now?" Written by Kevin Maney, one of the newspaper's tech writers who has a pretty good regular column, the article wonders which new forms of media are gaining favor in the hearts and minds of audiences.

"The movie industry is locked in debate about how to lure people out to theaters," starts Maney, but such debate is nothing new. The movie industry engaged in it in the early-1950s when commercial television became widespread, then again in the late-1970s and early-1980s when the same thing happened in regards to cable TV and home video. The difference now is that the choices of media that users face (as well as the variety of places they can use them) are much more diverse than just a box in one's living room. This diversity is the topic of the remainder of Maney's piece.

There is "a deeper trend at work" Maney states.
"It suggests that high-definition DVDs such as Blu-ray and HD DVD will not catch fire with consumers soon; that theatrical live concerts by bands such as U2 will only get more popular; and that live sports on cellphones could be a huge hit."
All of these suggestions sound spot on to me.

Although I have not looked into the technical details of it, I am unimpressed by the industry's entire high-def DVD initiative. This has nothing to do with whether or not the format (either of them) has great images or a quality superior to current DVDs; I have no doubt that they do. The problem is that it has only been half a decade since DVD emerged as the new mainstream home video format of choice for the mainstream audience. There's no way most people are going to (or be able to afford to) convert to another new format so soon. Nearly twenty years elapsed between the emergence of home video tapes and VCRs and the emergence of DVD, making many consumers ready to replace old equipment and worn out tapes anyways in the past several years. It's too soon for another transition in format.

The other issue--and I'm talking about mainstream audiences and consumers here, not videophiles or gadget aficionados--is that HD DVD does not represent the same radical leap in image quality and ease of use represented in the leap from analog magnetic video to digital DVD. Given the other factors I have mentioned, the improvement in image and audio quality going from VHS to DVD was significant (even to the mainstream). The ease of use with DVDs compared to VHS was also much greater, what with instant access to scenes, menu navigation, and the capability for extra features (not to mention the elimination of the pesky need to rewind tapes). What similar advances would consumers get from HD DVDs? A sharper image, probably even a dramatically sharper image. That alone is unlikely to be enough to get millions to invest millions in new machines and discs.

The other suggestions Maney makes seem about right too. Live concerts are an experience that cannot be reproduced in any form of recorded media. Ultimately, watching a movie at home--especially on the home theatre systems that are now available--is not that different from watching a movie in a movie theatre. A live concert is vastly different from either a digital recording (whether on CD or MP3 or its equivalent) or watching a concert DVD. It's not an accident that Maney includes the clause that concerts by bands "such as U2" are going to become more and more popular: just like in the movie business, its mainly the blockbuster music acts that have prospered in recent years. The other suggestion, that watching live sports on cellphones will be a future trend, seems like a shoo-in. Mobile video of all kinds is the vanguard media breakthrough, and watching live sports on a cellphone will probably be the 21st century equivalent of walking around listening to the game on a transistor radio.

All of these developments, says Maney, are related to fidelity, and the main trade-off that consumers have always weighed when it comes to media is fidelity vs. convenience.
"As fidelity gets more convenient, consumers constantly re-evaluate their choices. At certain moments, the trend crosses a threshold. Fidelity gets good enough in a package that's significantly more convenient, and consumers rush in. That often leaves older formats struggling to hold on to customers."
In other words, it is terribly inconvenient to go to the trouble and expense of going to an event like a football game or a rock concert but the level of fidelity--the quality of the experience, the presence of live performers or athletes, in addition to being part of a teeming, cheering crowd--is unmatched. On the other hand, compared to seeing a movie in a movie theatre, it is so convenient, and comparably inexpensive to boot, just to stay home and watch a movie--with not as great of a drop in fidelity. After predictions of the imminent demise of the movie theatre during the introduction of television and then cable and home video, this might finally be the era of media transformation when it actually happens.

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