Sony bests bar set by HD DVD format in mid-April

The DVD biz’s high-def format war inched one step closer Tuesday, when the first wave of Blu-ray movies hit shelves a few days before the first players officially go on sale.

The initial launch appeared to go smoothly — unlike the rival HD DVD launch in mid-April, there were no immediate reports of delays — but its impact is mitigated by the fact that most consumers won’t be able to actually play the discs until next week. Also not clear: how big a push electronics stores will give the software until they can set up displays with the pricier players.

Simply by getting all seven slated Blu-ray discs to stores Tuesday, Sony bested the low bar set by the HD DVD format in mid-April, when Warner homevid and Universal homevid got three out of four planned launch titles to most stores on street date. However, the Blu-ray discs still appeared nearly a month later than originally skedded; early last month, Sony delayed its discs when Samsung could not meet its skedded May 23 sale date for the first Blu-ray player (Daily Variety, May 4).

A Sony rep said it shipped about 15,000 units of each title, including “Hitch,” “Underworld: Evolution” and “The Terminator,” an MGM title distributed by Sony. That amount’s comparable to current HD DVD shipments.

Yet for all the advance warning, L.A. area retailers visited by Daily Variety late Tuesday morning had yet to actually get the titles onto shelves, let alone Blu-ray displays. Later in the day, an electronics store in Stockton, Calif., said it didn’t have the disc or the players for sale yet. The persistent delays have also caused confusion — and opportunism — on the hardware front. A Best Buy in Stockton, Calif., had a player on display, but not fully operational Saturday afternoon; by Monday night, it had been whisked off the shelf for another week. However, workers advised a shopper if he really wanted one before the official June 25 sale, they could arrange it. A staffer at a Hawthorne, Calif., Circuit City suggested the same to a Daily Variety reporter Monday afternoon.The attenuated launch contrasts sharply with targeted bow of standard DVD in April 1997, when Warner homevid brought the new format to seven cities with a greater initial slate of titles. By fall, the format had gone national. Although some studios delayed releasing titles on disc, they all supported the same format, unlike high-def.

In the weeks leading up to Blu-ray’s launch, studios have been doing their best to play down the notion of a format war in presentation after presentation designed to discourage comparisons to the Beta-VHS war in the dawning of the homevid era. Among the comparisons trotted out: co-existing videogame formats and cell phone carriers. Not mentioned: rival DVD Audio and Super Audio formats, which never supplanted the CD, as high-def DVD is expected to do with standard DVD.

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