Let's Stay Physical

Ernest Greene
From the get-go, I've been saying to ditch the funeral plans for the DVD format and deal with the temporary market dislocations resulting from overproduction, changing demographics and competition from other media. By now, I'm sure I sound like a broken record, or at least a frozen-up disc. So don't take my word for it. I've called in backup from the promised land of mainstream to buttress my case.

By now, the Writers Guild of America may or may not have settled its strike against the producers' association, but during the work stoppage, while we might have lost out on a few new Jay Leno monologues, we learned a thing or two about the issues that sent the writers to the picket lines.

Not surprisingly, much of the beef concerned residuals on new media, including Internet-delivered content. But as it turns out, there was also a deep reservoir of dissatisfaction over the writers' take from — of all things — DVD revenues, left over from the last round of contract negotiations. Evidently, these savvy scribes think discs are still worth a few bucks and they want to pocket a bigger percentage of those dollars.

Which brings us to a recent analysis on one of my favorite blogs, The Huffington Post, by Jonathan Handel, an entertainment attorney with Troy Gould and former associate counsel for the Writers Guild. I don't want to crib too much from a fellow scribbler, or violate fair-use regulations with the original work of a top-notch lawyer (I may be crazy but I'm not stupid). However, some of his comments are directly relevant to conversations I overhear daily on our side of the fence.

In Handel's view, home video "matters enormously," even in a "world of Internet and cell-phones."

And why is Mr. Handel so confident of this? While streaming and downloads will one day be huge, he agrees, that day is not yet. I presume Handel has access to the kind of detailed marketing data upon which mainstream media thrive and that are essentially unavailable in Porn Valley. According to the reports he reads, "even five years from now, the majority of in-home revenue will be from physical media: DVD and Blu-ray and/or HD DVD." He goes on to speculate that, once the hardware manufacturers finally settle on a next-gen format, there will be "a wave of new revenue as consumers re-purchase videos they currently own on DVD."

Small wonder when you consider the state of the art when it comes to hooking up computers to the big, expensive, flat-screen TVs and home-theater surround-sound systems into which consumers have sunk billions of dollars over the past few years.

Handel said: "Efforts to connect PCs to TV sets have faltered. Devices are awkward to use and haven't proved popular; and, of course, anything with a Windows PC in the mix is likely to be crash-prone and flaky. That means that getting all that wonderful Internet-based content to people's home theaters and expensive plasma screens is tough. Advantage DVD."

Of course, I've said all this before, but Handel raises a couple of other points I hadn't thought of. Not only is Internet technology advancing, so is physical media technology, raising the issue of "density," which is to discs what girth is to dicks. The hard drive in your computer today — a physical disc itself — holds about 500 million times the density of the first primitive hard drives available when the technology initially appeared.

In video terms, more density means more picture at higher resolution. As screens get bigger and picture quality improves, there will be more demand for density, and density is where physical media hold a decisive edge.

According to Handel: "If history is any guide, pipes will always lag devices. It has always been possible to deliver more data, more quickly, on a physical device than via telecom lines into a home. That's why, even today, you buy most software in physical form rather than via download. That's also why CDs are higher quality than MP3s — the latter are compressed and the former aren't."

In short, when it comes to delivering really good picture and sound, "physical media will probably always have the advantage, and transmission lines will always lag."

Think about it. How many hours of your life have you idled away waiting for tiny JPEGs to download via email? How much lag-time have you wasted while streaming video clips or even three-minute audio tracks squeezed out through a supposedly "high-speed" transmission line? Now, imagine multiplying that by the increased data-loads entailed in transmitting a three-hour high-definition feature, or at some future date, a full-motion 3-D video. You get the picture — or anyway, you will eventually if you don't croak from old age in the meantime. That's why Handel maintains that physical media residuals are important to mainstream screenwriters "and always will be."

Media technologies don't so much replace one another as they build on one another's foundations. Consider the first TV cameras, those lumbering behemoths geezers my age used to see trucking backwards during the lead-in to the "Today Show" when it was still hosted by Dave Garroway. They were essentially film cameras wired for live picture. In fact, the front end of the most modern HD cam isn't much different from that of those dinosaurs. It's a kinetically focused glass array. The focusing mechanism may have gotten smaller, and the onboard capability to manipulate the image from the lens may be enormously more sophisticated, but the business end where the light comes in hasn't changed much in the past century. It hasn't even gotten much smaller.

Which brings me back to a counter-trend specific to the porn biz, and therefore not addressed in Mr. Handel's opus. Even while DVD producers have been singing the blues over piracy, declining sales and the Internet menace, web producers have been quietly sliding into the DVD business. If physical media were really going the way of the kerosene lamp, why would smart outfits like Kink.com be making distro deals with equally smart outfits like Pulse? Could it possibly be that, coming from the Internet side, they observe the comparative advantages of which so many panic-stricken video producers seem to have lost sight of?

Recently, I happened to stroll into the giant Amoeba Records store on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. The place was packed, mostly with young people, who were not only buying DVDs, they were buying CDs and even vinyl — remixed, re-mastered, newly released vinyl at that. I was there in search of a new copy of Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited." I could have gone home and downloaded it from iTunes for my iPod, which I could then have plugged into my car's audio system, but I wanted to hear those old Dylan riffs with maximum clarity right then and there, when I was in the mood, by shoving a simple piece of plastic into a slot in my dashboard and pushing a button.

The appeal of that simplicity and entertainment value is unlikely to fade anytime soon. The smart guys at the WGA know this. And so do the smarter video producers.