DVD Update

After the fireworks of the previous two weeks in the battle over the digital videodisc (DVD), an uneasy calm settled in as Time Warner and Sony continued quiet machinations to gain studio endorsements for their competing formats.

Support from Hollywood movie studios is considered the key to whether the consumer electronics industry turns out players that play movies on the 5-inch double-sided disc devised by Toshiba and Time Warner, or the single-sided 5-inch disc designed by Sony and Philips.

TW/Toshiba vacated their suites at the Nikko Hotel in L.A., where they had been ensconced for a week to demonstrate their double-sided disc format to industry execs, journalists and anyone else they could rope in.

The alliance hammered together by TW/Toshiba held steady, with Matsushita and its studio, MCA, leading the pack of converts including MGM/UA, Turner Home Entertainment, and a fence-straddling Paramount.

No word yet from Disney on which format it favors, although a company source threw cold water on the idea that the studio would rush to market with the Sony/Philips format, which has shorter playing capacity, just because Disney’s animated features run an average of 90 minutes or less. The source pointed out that, due to its live-action feature divisions, Disney’s interest in a high-capacity disc is equal to that of the other studios.

Also on the fence is 20th Century Fox. Fox prexy Bill Mechanic was waffling in statements to the trade press all week, saying he wasn’t endorsing one format or the other, and that he felt a choice of two formats might actually be a good thing for consumers.

Recalling the Beta-vs.-VHS wars, some industry experts say a choice of two formats delays the rollout of new consumer electronics products.

Of Mechanic’s indecision, one high-level studio exec snorted, “If Rupert Murdoch had the same vision as Mechanic, there would be no Fox Network, no Sky TV and no Star TV either.”

On the other hand, it appears that Philips may be pushing up its demonstration of the Sony/Philips disc at an important trade fair in Germany next month to counteract the TW/Toshiba push (see Intertainment, page 69). Having jumped the gun in announcing their format in the first place, the Sony/Philips team has lost considerable ground to the competition.

With Sony president Norio Ohga close to retirement, the company may be seeking to delay the rollout of DVD until new leadership is in place. One tactic: “A Japanese solution,” referred to by Ohga at a press reception on Jan. 26, may mean bringing in MITI, the government agency that oversees Japanese industrial policy, to mediate a technological compromise.

If that happens, say industry observers, we may not see the DVD on store shelves anytime soon.

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