Posts Tagged ‘Blu-ray’

Everything Old Is New Again: Goodbye To The VCR

This past summer, the Funai Corporation of Japan decided to stop manufacturing videocassette recorders (VCRs) after several decades, citing their inability to source parts as the reason.

What’s that you say? You didn’t even know anyone was STILL making VCRs in 2016?

A reporter for the Washington Post was referred to me by The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) for some pithy quotes about the demise of the VCR, which had its debut in the United States 40 years ago this past summer. Yes, the ½” videocassette format has been around for some time, with the most popular iteration being the VHS format developed by Japan Victor Corporation, better known as JVC.

Sony also had a ½” videocassette format for home use called Betamax, and in many ways, it was a better way to record and watch TVs shows along with movies. But Sony’s insistence at keeping Betamax a proprietary format (a la Apple with Mac OS and iOS) eventually doomed it.

In contrast, JVC licensed VHS to a long list of companies: Panasonic. Hitachi, Philips. RCA. Zenith. GE. Sharp. You name the CE company; they probably sold a VHS VCR at some point. And that had a lot to do with the success of the format, which soon migrated to consumer camcorders. There was even a short-lived digital version (D-VHS) for recording HD programs and playing back movies in HD, starting in the late 1990s. Blu-ray soon killed that off, though.

When you think about it, the VCR was really at the top (or bottom) of a family tree that leads directly to today’s streaming, on-demand video services. And here’s why – the VCR created the concept of time-shifting; recording a TV program so you could watch when you wanted to, not when CBS, ABC, or NBC said you could.

VCRs also gave us the ability to skip through commercials, pause, and rewind to watch a clip over and over again. Or the entire show, for that matter. After Hollywood lost the famous Sony vs. Universal Studios Supreme Court decision in early 1984 – which ruled that making recordings of TV shows for home viewing was considered “fair use” under copyright statutes – the floodgates opened.

Not long after, studios started making movies available on VHS and Betamax cassettes for sale. Enterprising individuals, noting the $90 and $100 price tags for movies on cassette, opened small video rental clubs. For having your credit card on file, you could rent a movie for $5 or $6, making sure to rewind it (or paying an extra fee) and returning it for another movie.

Hollywood studios weren’t happy with this turn of events until smarter heads realized the additional revenue stream could add millions to the bottom line. And so companies like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video came into existence, happily raking in the cash as stacks of rental cassettes walked out the door every night.

The introduction of the DVD format almost 20 years ago (yes, it HAS been that long!) posed an immediate threat to the VHS format. (Betamax had long since folded its tent and left town.) Now, you didn’t need to rewind anything, and there was no annoying, blinking “12:00” indicator staring at you the entire time.

Bet of all, you could now jump through chapters of a movie by looking at I-frames. Fast forward, pause, and reverse were still available, but in theory, an optical disc would long outlast a VHS tape. It didn’t take long before video rental stores started replacing VHS tapes with DVDs, and by 2005, it was almost impossible to find a movie on VHS.

That was the first year that DVD sales began to decline, although rentals held their own for a few more years. Looming on the horizon were two new HD optical disc formats – HD DVD and Blu-ray – and Hollywood was giddy anticipating wheelbarrows of cash coming in. (True fact: The first Austin Powers movie was largely ignored at the box office and made most of its money through DVD rentals and purchases.)

But there was a fly in the ointment. About 7 years earlier, a company called TiVo unveiled something called the digital video recorder, or DVR. This gadget would let you record analog broadcast and cable TV programs to a hard drive – no tape or disc needed. TiVo sold a subscription program guide service, which is where they made most of their money. I had one of the first Philips-made TiVo units (14-hour capacity) and bought a lifetime subscription for $99 back in 1999, using a dial-up connection to refresh the program guide.

So now we could record a TV program, skip the commercials; fast-forward, pause and rewind, and simply delete the file when we were done. “Did you TiVo Letterman last night?” soon became water cooler talk. Along the way, we had obviated the need for any kind of recording media – tape or disc – in favor of solid-state storage.

A year after DVD sales started their decline, I bought one of TiVo’s first HD DVRs. It accepted CableCARDs, so it would work with Comcast. And it had dual DVRs (Wow!) so I could record two programs at once. It was big and noisy, but it served me well for 9 years.

Along the way, companies like Comcast, Time Warner, Charter, Dish Network, Verizon, and DirecTV came out with their own DVRs, some of which could record 4 or more shows at once. Now, you could record movies in high definition and watch them at your pleasure on your brand-new big-screen plasma or LCD TV.

And that brings us to the present day. Hollywood Video is long gone, and Blockbuster is bankrupt; its assets bought by Dish Network. The Blu-ray format, having vanquished HD DVD, isn’t the cash cow that Hollywood anticipated as more and more video and movies are watched via ever-faster streaming connections. DVD players – once selling for $1,000 – can be found for $19.99. And Blu-ray players with WiFi are widely available for about $50 – $70.

Netflix has now evolved into a streaming media monster, as has Amazon. YouTube, a pioneer in streaming shared videos, now offers a “red” premium tier, free of commercials. HBO and Showtime, along with ABC and CBS, have started subscription streaming services that can be purchased without a cable or satellite subscription. Episodic TV series are being produced for streaming channels and they’re not scrimping on production values.

So we’ve come full circle. My Comcast Xfinity set-top box is a DVR, but it streams channels from a cloud server, not from an internal hard drive. My contacts at Comcast tell me we’re not far from the day when there won’t be any set-top (or sidecar) receivers at all – your smart Ultra HDTV with WiFi will do all the heavy lifting. (After all, smart TVs are basically computers with big display screens these days.)

Today, you can go quite happily through life without having to wind a tape or load a disc in order to watch HDTV.  And that’s exactly the way things were forty years ago. Weird, right? Except you now have hundreds of channels to choose from; all of which can be streamed on-demand depending on the service you subscribe to.

Time-shifting. Commercial skipping. DVDs. Blu-ray. DVRs. Chapter searches. Video streaming. All of these grew directly out of that first VHS VCR that was sold 40 years ago.

And all you need to watch it is a smart TV and a remote. Everything old is indeed new again…

 

 

 

 

Ultra HD Blu-ray: Getting Closer

On May 12, the Blu-ray Disc Association announced it had completed the specifications for Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and concurrently released a new logo to go with the format. UHD BD supports a maximum image resolution of 3840×2160 pixels, refreshed at a variety of frame rates (including 60 Hz) with a maximum of 10 bits per pixel coding.

The move to Ultra HD (or Quad HD) resolution is a big step forward for this optical disc format, which has been fighting to hold its place in the media landscape against video streaming and digital movie downloads, both of which can also handle 1080p/60 video with 8-bit color.

UHD+BD+Logo+JPG MR

One key component of the new format is support for high dynamic range (HDR) imaging, being touted as the next big thing by the likes of Dolby and Vizio. HDR imaging represents about 15 stops of light from deep shadows to bright white, and is an impressive tool in the arsenal of next-generation television – which is essentially what Ultra HD (and beyond) represent.

Audio is getting a workout too, with the addition of object-oriented, multi-spatial playback formats that go far beyond Dolby and DTS 7.1 formats. (Anyone for NHK’s 22.2 surround format?)

Of course, all new Ultra HD Blu-ray players must be backward-compatible with older Blu-ray Discs. What’s not mentioned in the Blu-ray Disc Association press release is that your UHDTV must be compatible with HDCP (copy protection) version 2.2 to play back UHD content as it becomes available.

And if you do the math, you’ll realize that you’ll also need at least an HDMI version 2.0 interface (or DisplayPort 1.2, or superMHL) on your TV or projector to handle the much higher interface data rates that will result from 10-bit color played back from UHD Blu-ray discs. Every Ultra HDTV I’ve seen so far has at least one HDMI 2.0 input, and some are also including DisplayPort 1.2.

Here's Panasonic's prototype Ultra HD Blu-ray player, chugging along at 108 Mb/s while standing still!

Here’s Panasonic’s prototype Ultra HD Blu-ray player, chugging along at 108 Mb/s while standing still!

There’s another possible catch. The UHD Blu-ray standard supports HEVC H.265, a new video codec that is 50% more efficient than H.264 AVC, the current Blu-ray codec. H.265 is really a key part of the specification, considering there’s four times the image resolution in each frame of UHD video. So your UHD TV should also recognize and decode H.265 content, which may also arrive over streaming connections.

And “streaming” is the wild card here. There’s no question that Blu-ray provides the best at-home, near-cinematic experience of any playback format. However, the trend over the past half decade clearly shows more consumer dollars shifting toward streaming and downloads, often on smaller handheld devices like tablets which don’t need 2160p resolution. And with companies like Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner, and Cablevision worried about losing customers, more emphasis is being put on increasing broadband speeds to the home as a competitive marketing edge.

Add in a growing catalog of HEVC-compatible devices (TVs, set-top boxes, computers, gaming consoles) and it will be easier than ever to deliver UHD content to the home “on demand.” Maybe not next week, or even this year.

But it will happen: The blue laser optical disc format wars concluded about seven years ago, while video streaming was in its infancy. Today, we can stream 1080p video to just about any media device. Look at how many passengers on flights, trains, and buses now watch movies and TV shows on tablets and even smartphones. For the vast majority of consumers, the story is all about convenience and price in accessing and watching movies, and not so much about quality.

So – a new BD standard is a good thing, if for no other reason than to keep up with the shift to next-generation television. It will be a great format for those who simply have to own a movie, or who still want to rent one on disc. (I’m looking forward to finally seeing the burial and and reading the epitaph for 8-bit color!)

But the disc-focused segment of the market is becoming a smaller piece of the revenue pie for Hollywood with each passing year, and it’s not clear if the Ultra HD Blu-ray standard will have any impact on that trend. How fast will consumers embrace this format? What will movies cost, compared to today’s Blu-ray disc packages? How about the Ultra Violet registry, and cross-platform access to purchased content? Do we even need physical media any more?

Stay tuned!

A Tale Of Two Companies, Revisited

It’s annual meeting time in Japan, and the final reports for fiscal year 2014 are trickling in. (In Japan, the fiscal year starts on April 1 and runs through March 31.)

Given all of the financial misery that Japan Inc. has been enduring for the past four years, you’d probably cringe before opening the latest consolidated financial statements. Yet, there was a surprise this time.

Let’s look at two of the dominant CE brands in Japan – Panasonic and Sony. The former company grabbed some headlines last year when it announced an exit from the plasma display panel (PDP) business, effective 12/31/13. For years, plasma displays and televisions were synonymous with Panasonic – they dominated the market and provided most of the technological breakthroughs that led to the (still to this day, IMHO) “best in class” televisions on the market.

Sometimes “best’ doesn’t always win. Plasma TV shipments and sales had been in steady decline for the past seven years as more and more consumers chose LCD TVs, particularly after 1080p resolution became widespread and national discounters like Vizio forced prices down to bargain-basement levels.

2013’s final numbers from NPD DisplaySearch show that plasma TV shipments from all brands (Panasonic, Samsung, and LG) accounted for slightly more than 4% of the global TV market. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and Panasonic – who had been in the midst of a massive review of all 80+ of its business units – did the right thing and quickly cut its losses, however painful that may have been.

Now, it appears all of that aggressive restructuring and cost-cutting has paid off. For FY 2014, Panasonic posted a net profit of about ¥120.4 billion, or $1.18B USD. That represents a spectacular turnaround from a ¥754 billion loss in FY 2013, or about $7B USD.

In addition to the money-losing plasma operations, Panasonic also jettisoned its mobile phone business. (Didn’t know they made mobile phones? Neither did most people.) Along with slimming down underperforming business units, finishing the acquisition of Sanyo and all costs associated with it, and shifting their focus to everything from energy storage solutions to Lumix cameras, the company realized an operating profit of ¥305 billion ($2.3B) for the fiscal year.

Now, on to Sony, who has struggled to maintain profitability for several years, thanks in part to the never-ending red ink generated by its television business unit. Sony won’t post its final numbers until May 15, but an advisory went out on May 1 saying that they won’t be pretty – and in fact will be worse than previous guidance suggested.

The company now is forecasting an operating income of ¥26 billion ($255M USD) for FY 2014 when all is said and done. That number represents a steep drop of 67% from the company’s original forecast of ¥80 billion ($783M USD). Sony identified two primary reasons for the drop in income. I’ll quote from the company’s press release:

“Sony expects to record approximately 30 billion yen in additional expenses in the fiscal year ended March 31, 2014 related to exiting the PC business. Since Sony’s announcement on February 6, 2014 that it will exit the PC business, PC sales for the fiscal year ended March 31, 2014 and expected PC sales for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2015 are underperforming the February expectation. Consequently, Sony expects to record write-downs for excess components in inventory and accrual of expenses to compensate suppliers for unused components ordered for Sony’s spring PC lineup. In addition, certain restructuring charges are expected to be recorded ahead of schedule.”

Okay, so the computer operations weren’t pulling their weight, which is why Sony decided to exit stage right and reportedly sell their VAIO operations to Lenovo (as announced in February). But there’s more:

Sony expects to record approximately 25 billion yen in impairment charges mainly related to its overseas disc manufacturing business. Primarily due to demand for physical media contracting faster than anticipated, mainly in the European region, the future profitability of the disc manufacturing business has been revised. Consequently, Sony has determined that it does not expect to generate sufficient cash flow in the future to recover the carrying amount of long-lived assets, resulting in an expected impairment charge. Primarily due to the reason mentioned above, the fair value of the entire disc manufacturing business also has decreased, resulting in an expected impairment of goodwill.”

Translation: The Blu-ray and DVD business is in the tank, particularly in Europe. Clearly, consumers are turning more and more to cloud storage and streaming of movies and TV shows, and not purchasing or renting optical discs. That’s definitely not good news in Tokyo, but it’s not like this trend snuck up and blindsided the company: I’ve been writing about it for several years now in Display Daily.

Given how aggressively Sony worked a few years ago to convince Warner Home Media and other studios to dump the nascent HD-DVD format in favor of Sony’s home-grown Blu-ray platform, this development must sting all the more. And talk about bad timing: The latest numbers from the Digital Entertainment Group (DEG) show that digital movie sales (streaming and downloads) during the first three months of 2014 totaled $330.25 million, while optical disc sales and revenue were down 13.7% to $1.82 billion from $2.1 billion in the first quarter of 2013, continuing a long-term steady decline that goes all the way back almost a decade.

We won’t have the final numbers from Sony for a few weeks. (Sharp and Toshiba also have yet to report their year-end results.) But you can clearly see what happens when one company faces reality and takes the bull by the horns, while another keeps stalling for time. I’ll check in again in two weeks with the rest of the numbers from Japan, Inc.

DEG: Here’s The Rest of the Story

The headlines sure look impressive: “Overall Consumer Spending on Home Entertainment Up 2 Percent in First Half of 2013!” “Blu-ray Disc Sales Up 15 Percent Over Mid-Year 2012!” “Electronic Sell-Through Surges 50 Percent!”

Yes, it’s the latest Home Entertainment Report from the Digital Entertainment Group, the industry association that promotes the Blu-ray disc format, and to a lesser degree digital downloads and Internet streaming of movies and TV shows.

The DEG’s original mission (and its predecessor’s, the Blu-ray Disc Association) was to push Blu-ray into every home as a replacement for the standard-definition red laser DVD. But a funny thing happened along the way while the Blu-ray and HD-DVD camps were slugging it out: Consumers discovered streaming, specifically from Netflix. And many of those same consumers decided they didn’t need an optical disc format anymore.

DVD sales began to tank in 2005, and DVD rentals starting falling off a few years later. The popularity of video-on-demand (streaming, downloads) grew so quickly that it surpassed the revenue from optical disc sales and rentals in 2011, and quite frankly, very few people saw that coming.

The problem with streaming and digital downloads is that they’re not as profitable as selling and renting optical discs, or “packaged media” as Hollywood calls them. Blockbuster found this out the hard way, as did Hollywood Video a few years earlier. And 3D did absolutely squat to boost the fortunes of the Blu-ray format after all of the hullaballoo died down.

It would appear that consumers who want to watch movies have decided they don’t need an actual physical copy sitting on their shelf. All they need is “anytime, anywhere” access to that movie. The net result is $4 and $5 rentals of Blu-ray quality movies through iTunes, Nook, Amazon, and other online stores…and not sales of $20 and $25 Blu-ray combo packs at Best Buy, Wal-Mart, and Target.

So what’s with the skepticism? you may ask, given the upbeat headlines from DEG. Hmmm…If you scan the press release in more detail, you’ll find these gems hidden within:

* Overall DVD and Blu-ray disc sales fell 4.7% Y-Y to nearly $3.6 billion in the first half of 2013.

* Overall rental revenue, including digital, fell more than 5.5% Y-Y to nearly $3.1 billion.

* DVD/BD rentals from physical stores like Blockbuster fell 12.6% Y-Y to $522 million.

* Subscription-based DVD/BD rental revenue declined nearly 21% Y-Y to $531 million.

* Revenue from DVD/BD kiosks fell nearly 4% Y-Y to $955 million.

Notice the underlined words “fell” and “declined.” And how they all apply to optical disc formats. These trends haven’t changed significantly in the past eight years for DVDs, and an uptick in revenue from the sale of Blu-ray movies (usually in combo packs with DVDs and a digital copy) to the tune of 15% so far this year hasn’t been enough to offset any of these trends.

DEG, who has been known in the past to cherry-pick the data but not fill in the blanks, also stated that “Consumers bought more than five million Blu-ray compatible devices during the first six months. There are now more than 61 million Blu-ray players in U.S. homes.”

An interesting data set, but the big follow-up question is; how exactly are those “Blu-ray compatible devices and players” being used? Keep in mind that iPads, Galaxys, Kindles, and Nooks are in one sense “Blu-ray compatible devices” in that they can play back 1080p movies with 8-bit color. As for those 61 million Blu-ray players – are they functioning more often than not (as my experience tells me) as low-cost streaming media boxes, with the occasional BD loaded up now and then? DEG doesn’t say, so the number hasn’t any real significance right now.

Well, what was the good news, if any? For starters, video-on-demand services were up 6.9% Y-Y, earning nearly $1.1B.  And subscription-based streaming (read: Netflix) saw a gain of 32% Y-Y, generating about $1.5B in cold hard cash for studios and media conglomerates. And total home entertainment spending in the USA hit $4.63B for the first six months of this year, up 3% Y-Y.

In other words; streaming and downloads are in, physical disc rentals are on the way out. And to some degree, so are physical disc purchases. And that’s a perfectly logical development: If you can access any movie any time you want on any device, why on earth would you buy a physical copy of it that you might watch only once or twice?

As has been pointed out to me on more than one occasion, streaming doesn’t provide anywhere near the quality of a blue laser optical disc. True, and you also don’t see “buffering” on-screen messages or suffer through locked-up I-frames when watching a Blu-ray disc, unless your BD player has a problem.

Lately, I’ve been renting movies in HD resolution (1080p/60) and downloading (not streaming) them to my Nook HD+. I can watch them on a plane, anywhere in my house, or even on my family room TV or through my home theater projection system simply by plugging in an HDMI cable.  That’s pretty doggone convenient, and easy to carry around.

New releases usually command a $4 to $6 rental fee at the Nook store and I have 30 days to watch any movie after paying for it. I downloaded two movies for a recent flight to Italy (Amelia and The Great and Powerful Oz; I passed on Flight for obvious reasons!) and while I enjoyed both of them, I have no desire to own either movie or rent them again. I suspect I’m not unlike many consumers in feeling that way.

Long story short; while the DEG headlines raised my eyebrows, the true story behind the numbers did not. DEG’s data clearly indicates that the trend away from physical media continues to accelerate, albeit slowly. What that means for the BD format in the near future is uncertain, particularly when MPEG4 H.265 (HEVC) is implemented in a couple of years and we will be able to stream 1080p/60 content at 2-3 Mb/s – slow enough for the average cable Internet connection.

And that’s the rest of the story…

TV, Over The Air and Everywhere!

In a Bloomberg story from May 3, Aereo chairman Chet Kanojia is calling the TV networks’ bluff. Aereo’s “streaming terrestrial broadcasts over the Internet, one antenna at a time” service, which is expanding to Boston, has stirred the ire of News Corporation (parent of Fox) and CBS.

Executives at both networks, having suffered two setbacks in court, have threatened to shut down their broadcasts completely and move to cable/satellite distribution exclusively if Aereo doesn’t relent and pay a retransmission fee to carry their New York City signals.

Kanojia was quoted in the article as saying, “The reality is, they want to get paid twice, and Aereo is just an excuse to articulate that business strategy. Good luck to them.” Practically speaking, CBS and Fox would face several logistical hurdles to pull this off, not the least of which would be answering to Congress if they did shut down their terrestrial transmitters, viewed by at least 15% of the American public.

Strangely enough, both network’s sugar daddy – the National Football League – has yet to be heard from in this kerfuffle. The NFL has repeatedly stated it does not want to sign rights deals that would restrict broadcasts of its games to pay TV channels, giving only Monday Night Football to ESPN. If CBS and Fox decided to pull their 8VSB power plugs, what would Roger Goodell say?

More importantly, how does Goodell feel about Aereo carrying NFL games for which they haven’t paid any rights? The NFL is scrupulous about enforcing so-called “public” performances of NFL games outside of bars, restaurants, and other places of public accommodation. They’ve even come after churches for hosting free Super Bowl parties in the past. So, where’s the indignation at Aereo?

I suppose if CBS and Fox went ahead with their threat, we could always fire up that ol’ Blu-ray player or smart TV function many of us don’t use. In a Home Media story also published on May 3, the Nielsen Company announced that Blu-ray Disc and transactional video-on-demand (VOD) “made significant gains as the primary means for consumers to acquire home entertainment movies and TV shows in 2012.”

According to Nielsen, 83.6% of consumers used a DVD or Blu-ray player to watch video at home, while 45.1% of the sample audience used video game console and 44.1% favored digital video recorders. The number of respondents who preferred streaming rental movies increased by 32% in the past six months of 2012 compared with the same time period in2011.

During the same interval, 29% more opted for transactional VOD to watch TV shows, 12% more preferred using Netflix to watch movies, and 24% more jumped on board subscription video-on-demand services to watch TV programs.

Intriguingly, 14% more survey respondents said they bought a Blu-ray movie over 2011, while 25% said they preferred Blu-ray for TV shows. (I assume that meant mostly boxed sets?)  And you may be surprised to learn that adult female respondents who use the Internet are more likely to buy movies or TV shows on optical disc than adult male respondents.

The rise in popularity of streaming and transactional VOD may be due to the fact that of 56% of all households with broadband Internet access now have at least one TV set connected to the Internet. So says The Diffusion Group in a recent report. Streaming media players lead in the connected category for accessing streaming services, followed by video game consoles like the Xbox and PlayStation platforms. Connected Blu-ray players came in third, followed by smart TVs.

The NPD Group sees that pecking order changing soon, stating that by next year, connections through dedicated streaming boxes (Apple TV, Roku) and smart TVs will eclipse connections via Blu-ray players — another sign of people moving away from movies on discs. They also found that 40% of households with Internet-connected TVs watch videos from Netflix, 17% watch YouTube videos, and 11% watch movies and TV shows via Hulu.

So, is streaming the hot ticket? Not necessarily, unless you have the patience of a saint, says a story on the Streaming Media Blog Web site. Conviva, a company heavily involved in research and development of more effective and reliable streaming solutions, analyzed over 22 billion (yes, BILLION) video streams in 2012 with an eye toward reliability. These streams included Netflix, ESPN, HBO, Viacom, VEVO, MLB, USA, NBC, and others, said the story.

The result? 60% of all streams experienced quality degradation. Re-buffering affected 20.6% of streams interrupting programs, while 19.5% of the streams were impacted by slow video startup and 40% were plagued by grainy or low-resolution picture quality caused by low bit rates. (Check your home broadband speed sometime between 9 and 10 PM, using CNET’s Broadband Speed test. You may be shocked by the results!)

Drilling down, 60% of views were impacted by stalls, low resolution or buffering. 39.3% of streams were impacted by buffering and 4% (900 million streams) never started at all. And while many consumers are watching on a screen capable of displaying high-quality (HQ) video, 63% are viewing below HQ resolution anyway. Hate waiting in line? Conviva said that in 2012, a staggering 124.8 billion minutes were spent in buffering.

You know what? I think I’ll just go read a book. (No, make that an e-book. Wait, I have to download it first! Bufferingbufferingbuffering…)