The Format Wars - How DVD is being forced onto you
DVDism – are you being forced to buy this new technology you don’t need?
Those of us with long memories might remember Vinyl Albums. Well, maybe not that long a memory. What you probably don’t think about is the way that Vinyl albums came to be rendered obsolete by CDs’. In 1985, Sony decided that they had created a new format: Compact Disc. People didn’t need it, people were still happy with Vinyl albums. So Sony forced the hand of the consumer, deleting vast majorities of their classical and jazz audiophile catalogue and reissuing the select best selling titles on CD only. Pretty soon, CDs began to include exclusive and unreleased tracks. When vinyl started to go up in price, the death knell was sounded. The corporations didn’t care about the format, just the way of selling new hardware and software to people. Of making money for nothing, an easy way of repackaging the past again in a “better than ever before – digitally remastered!” manner, and selling shedloads of units for a minimal outlay.
Now, 15 years later, It’s a case of the emperors new clothes. With the advent of DVD, the multi-national corporations have got a chance to resell, repackage, re-exploit you all over again. Now that VHS have been the primary format for 20 years (like LP’s were the primary sound format from 20 years between 1965-1985), and VCR's are as ubiquitous as the telephone, the market reached saturation point. They’ve milked VCR's for as many sales as they are gonna get, and multinationals such as Sony (who also make films and records) as well as Philips (who own EMI, who also make films and records) are going to see their profit margins decrease. Every home has a VHS machine. So what they need to do is to make something new we are told we need. Its called DVD.
Of course, no-ones going to buy into a hardware format which has no software. So, in order to push the format, these multinationals have a plan. They’re going to competitively deselect VHS. They’re going to make it uncompetitive, so that sooner or later everybody buys a DVD player and then they’ve raised the industry standard to another, more expensive format. Compare the price of a DVD new - £24.99 for Gladiator, £19.99 as standard for just about everything else. Compare this to £12.99 for a new VHS cassette. The cost of producing these discs is the same as an audio CD, just the method of encoding is different – not that the cost of making a glass lacquer master is expensive, not even for one which has the quantity of information that DVD affords.After all the price for manufacturing a glass master for CD singles and albums is identical. This premium price (for a premium product) helps fill their coffers, reduced the amount of disposable income we can spend on other products, and increase their profit. It’s all about the bottom line: who you give your dollar to.
Much like when CD came out, the average price for a CD was £15, compared to £6.99 for a vinyl LP. Why was it so high? Because they said at the time, the costs of manufacturing CD’s was so much more expensive because of their being so much less demand for the format, so cost per unit was higher, and some record contracts (such as the Silvertone records contract the stone roses had) meant that artists never got paid for a single CD they sold, and in the majority of cases (like EMI) the artist was forced to accept a reduced royalty rate for CDs’ to offset the cost of production (reduced from 13% gross to 8% net in the majority of cases. This so-called temporary reduction was never reversed). Since that date, the price of CDs’; has not gone down, but has remained the same, despite the claims that CD prices would be reduced. So, then, as DVD becomes more popular, will the price of price of DVD’s go down? The fact that DVD’s sell prove that people are willing to pay a premium price for a premium product, so why should they ever go down? They won’t. As long as we’re willing to pay the price, they’re willing to sell them to us. The question is therefore, how to get us to buy more, and to make more profits.
The answer is to get us to buy DVD players and DVDs’, rather than VHS tapes for machines we already own. The solution is to make VHS seem like such an unattractive format we feel forced to buy DVDs’ instead, by competitively disadvantaging the format, and thus making DVD the industry standard, for more money at more profit. The first stage in doing so is to make DVD a more sellable product, by plying it with additional features: deleted scenes, additional audio tracks and commentaries, outtakes, different versions of the film entirely. The directors cut trend started a long time ago, in 1992 with the directors cut of Blade Runner, which did so well when released cinematically the studios began to exploit the market for new and unused footage. And it all started from a mistake when the wrong (preview) version of the film was pulled out in 1990 for an arthouse showing of Blade Runner. Imagine, versions of your favourite film you’ve never seen before, versions you can edit yourself, the movie buffs dreams. Well, now you can have it – for a price. The price is a lack of consumer choice in formats.
One of the other ways this has been achieved has been a very sneaky use of release schedules. Now, as never before, films are being released on DVD sell-through first way before they are released for sale on VHS. Enemy of the State (a huge hollywood blockbuster starring box office gold in the shape of producer Jerry Bruckheimer and actor Will Smith) was probably the first and most prominent example of this, released in the middle of 99 on DVD at the same time as VHS rental. Other films soon followed the example. David Fincher’s anti-corporate subversion film Fight Club was released at first on DVD with additional footage for DVD rental and VHS rental, only in the latter case without the extra footage, (which was oddly restored when it was released on VHS sell-through). The World Is Not enough, the Bond film, was released on DVD at the same time as VHS rental, again with bonus “making of” documentaries on the DVD only. Funnily enough, for these films, all the additional footage disappeared when they were released on VHS (except where stated above), though of course, it would be easy to add these onto the tapes, they choose not to for a very simple reason; they want to disadvantage the VHS. Its not hard to spot the pattern; in order to make DVD the preferred format of choice, these discs are released way way in advance of VHS copies, with bonus extras for the cinematic buff, the target audience. Now its unusual if the DVD isn’t released first. Its no coincidence that these films appeal to the technology-literate, disenfranchised 20 something generation, the market demographic that’s monied with disposable income, before kids and education fees start to eat it all up, the cine buffs and genres freaks. Those with sufficient money to spend on electrical luxury goods DVD players, PlayStation 2’s, you name it.
The reason why this has been especially prevalent is if you look at the history of formats. Laserdisc was originally intended to take over from VHS in the same way that DVD did, but only ever took off in Japan, where it remains the primary format. Laserdisc never established a strong commercial foothold anywhere else in the world for the general public, only for the most discerning movie buffs. It was probably due to the bulky LP sized discs in a world where the LP sized disc was seemed old fashioned when compared to the portable, snug size of a CD. Laserdisc never took off in the way it was supposed to, never replaced VHS in the same way that CD replaced Vinyl LPs’. According to David King of the British Video Associaition “The whole point of DVD was to create one universal format everyone could use, so we could avoid a Betamax/ VHS type battle “ (note: Betamax was actually the superior format to VHS, but VHS had better marketing; just like DVD has better marketing now). However, as the public never caught onto Laserdisc or its predecessor Video CD, the name DVD was changed.
DVD was originally intended to stand for Digital Video Disc, but negative connotations of the phrase video disc after the failure of CDvideo, meant it was soon renamed Digital Versatile Disc, so they could plug its selling points even more. As one magazine referred to its “DVD: it’s the new VHS, you know” – and they promptly ended the same paragraph with the phrase “come in VHS your time is up!”. It wouldn’t take a genius to work out where the industry would like us to spend our cash, especially if you look at the fact that more and more studios – most recently 20th Century Fox and Dreamworks SKG – have been jumping on the bandwagon, especially in late 1999.
However, the concept of a universal format turns out to be industry chaff - a smokescreen, thanks to the concept of region encoding. Quite simply, DVD releases are divided into global regions (region 1 = USA, region 2 = Europe, middle East, Japan and so on) to protect cinema revenues and domestic sales of DVDs’. With the advent of the internet, you could order a region 1 DVD for “Pitch Black” before it hit the cinemas in the UK. However, you could only watch it for a DVD player converted to play Region 1 DVDs’(which would invalidate the warranty, but a simple enough operation to do). Once the companies started realising this was taking place on a widescale basis, they built in additional software meaning that it could only be watched on Region 1 players (not multi-region players) and so forth. Once again, the consumer loses out – for example, different regions have different extras. Someone watching Evil Dead II in the USA on DVD will have a 30 minute featurette on the making of the film – in the UK it has been reduced to 4 minutes thanks to these petty company politics. The 50 minute featurette on Licence to Kill was reduced to 4 minutes for the UK.The only people who lose out are the consumers upon which these companies depend. So once again, the multi-nationals take our money and, well,that’s it.
It gets interesting if you look further into three of the films I’ve picked out above ; Enemy of the State, Fight Club, and The World is Not Enough. All of them have heavy product placement and sponsorship deals: Enemy of the State features prominent shots of brands such as Coca-Cola and Rolex. Fight Club – for all its corporate subversion, has Starbucks Coffee cups appearing wherever they are possible to in the film, and as director David Fincher said in Empire magazine” I don’t have anything personal against Starbucks, I think they’re trying to do a good thing.” Heavy product placement there. And Bond films are legendary for their product placement: BMW, Rolex, Ericsson – all of which are multinational companies, affilliated to electronics companies such as Sony, and Philips -–the inventors and manufacturers of – hey, you guessed it, DVD players and CD players. And all these three films appeared on DVD way before VHS, for which a manufacturing royalty has to be paid under mechanical copyright law to Philips for inventing this technology for every player and every disc made. Add up the units, and that’s a lot of bucks. I think I spot a pattern forming, one whereby part of the release deal for sponsorship is to help manufacturers sell DVD players by adding all the extra gubbins and prioritised release dates to these cross-pollinated cross-marketed multinational corporate deals.
Ultimately, the people who miss out the most are the people buying the films, the film buffs; freedom of choice is simply reduced to Pepsi or coke, VHS or DVD – and even that’s being reduced. Instantly, your VHS collection is made reduandant and you have to buy it all again – in the same way that you did when CD replaced Lps’.The only person who seems to have held out so far, amazingly given his prediliction for brand sponsorship, is George Lucas, who released the Phantom menace on VHS only earlier in the year – and even then, it only appeared on Laserdisc in one country (Japan, which was later bootlegged for pirate DVDs’ of the film). With the advent of digital TV in the UK, and the elimination of analog TV signals in 2006, by the year 2006 everyone is going to have to have bought a digital TV – otherwise you won’t be able to watch TV in the UK. I wonder how close the ties between the government advisory committees on broadcasting and TV manufacturers is, and the answer is probably that the government would go to who they consider experts in the field – those who work for and own the companies in question, those in whose vested interest for their own personal profits it would benefit to pass this recommendation that would mean everyone in the Uk has to own a new TV in the next five years whether they like it or not. Freedom of choice = the freedom to exploit any weakness you can find.
Next time you rent a VHS video, watch closely at the trailers at the beginning; chances are, it might have a competition at the beginning offering the chance to win…a DVD player. Or even a glossy ad proclaiming how wonderful this new, improved format with added * pizzaz * is, so they can sell you on the idea of it is. You’ll also notice that videos containing the advert about the pirate videos is decreasing – simply because with the advent of DVD, if everyone changes to DVD, then video piracy disappears as the format is dead. Especially now that some products are being put out on DVD exclusively: for example Robbie Williams has done so twice, the latest being a full length concert video with an exclusive studio track for DVD only, never to be released on any other format. Blur did so, with the “No distance left to run” DVD, never released on VHS.
So where does this leave VHS?. Being forced out of the market by powerful multinational companies that want to sell us a lot of hardware we don’t really need, using marketing, release schedules and digital TV to do so. Capitalism in action ; Once again, the hand of the consumer is being forced into an increasingly narrow selection of leisure options in order to generate profits for multinationals. Most of us don’t seem to realise, or even care, that this is taking place. The question you have ask yourself now, is do you care? And if you do, what are you gonna do about it? Who yer gonna call? Ghostbusters?
I know what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna put a tape in my trusty VCR, watch that crappy B-movie I taped off Sci-fi last night, before DVD came along and meant I could no longer record off TV channels, before DVD forced me to buy every movie I can ever watch, before my leisure options were reduced by some faceless corporations. And you know what? I love it.