Studio to move away from Toshiba's HD DVD format

In the biggest victory yet for Sony in the war over the next-generation high-def DVD wars, Warner is expected to announce today that it is adopting Sony’s Blu-ray platform.

Warner Home Video will continue to support Toshiba’s so-called HD DVD format (which is incompatible with Blu-ray), but the dual backing is a far cry from the original plan to go strictly with HD DVD.

The studio has been threatening to release movies in both formats since last month.

One of the two other major studios in the HD DVD camp, Paramount Home Entertainment, became the first studio to hedge its exclusivity with the HD camp when it announced earlier this month that it would also publish movies in Sony’s Blu-ray format.

Warner was holding out for concessions by the Blu-ray group on a number of issues, particularly increased safeguards against unauthorized copying. Sources say the Blu-ray board voted at 5 p.m. Wednesday to approve revisions requested by Warner.

“This is something the HD camp cannot recover from,” said one executive close to the negotiations.

But Toshiba, which has been aware of Warner’s impending decision, is planning to go forward with the introduction next year of its competing HD DVD.

“The studios have decided to allow consumers to decide, and that’s a shame,” said one top studio exec.

Industry observers believe Warner and Paramount are hedging their bets with their moves on the chance that Sony will not be able to deliver as robust a product as it says in the timeframe it promises — mid-2006, either slightly before or after the introduction of Sony’s PlayStation 3, which will incorporate Blu-ray as well.

If Sony delivers, many studio execs say Warner and Par will likely abandon the HD DVD platform altogether.

If not, media companies are under such pressure to deliver a new product to revive double-digit growth of pre-recorded movies that they will go ahead with Toshiba’s format.

One studio exec says that engineers re-evaluated the Blu-ray technology as recently as this week and concluded that it will not be ready to offer everything Sony promises for two more years.

With Warner’s announcement, Universal is the lone studio solely in the HD DVD camp. While it is not commenting officially, sources say Universal has no motivation to follow the lead of Warner and Paramount and will likely wait at least a few weeks and maybe much longer before making any announcements of its own.

Ironically, Warner’s decision came the same day that Blu-ray camp member Hewlett-Packard announced a request of the Blu-ray Assn. to consider adding two technologies to the Blu-ray format that would unify the two platforms, a mandatory “Managed Copy” system and “iHD.”

Managed Copy allows consumers to make legitimate copies of their HD movies and play them anywhere around the world; iHD enables new interactivity with standards-based development tools and technologies.

Sources said while HP’s efforts were in the direction Warner was already asking the Blu-ray group to move, the announcement had little, if any bearing on Warner’s decision.

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