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No go for high def

Toshiba hits pause on plans for format

WASHINGTON — After weeks of hoping against hope, Toshiba is abandoning plans to launch the HD DVD format in the U.S. this year.

In emails to its U.S. studio partners Thursday, the hardware maker said it was considering a “retiming” of the format’s introduction for sometime next year to ensure maximum software and retail support.

“We are now in talks with Hollywood studios and large-scale retailers to seek the most effective timing of the launch and best way to launch,” the company said in a statement issued to Japanese media outlets. “The majority (of HD DVD companies) prefer a large-scale launch, rather than a gradual launch.”

Although Toshiba did not explicitly say, either in its public statements in Japan or in its emails to the studios, that the launch is definitely off for this year, company said it plans to “begin” production of HD DVD players by the end of this year.

As a practical matter, if production has not started by early September, players will not get to retail shelves in time for Christmas.

Until this week, Toshiba had been telling reporters that at least a small number of players would arrive this year, with at least limited software support.

What impact the delay will have on the ongoing battle with rival format Blu-ray Disc was not immediately clear.

Last month, reps from the Blu-ray camp said they hoped that, in the case of a delay in the launch of HD DVD, the extra time could be used for further efforts to agree on aunified format.

Warner Home Video officials said at the time that finding a compromise on a single format was more important than proceeding quickly with a launch of HD DVD.

Warner is one of three studios that has previously vowed to support HD DVD. Paramount Home Entertainment and NBC Universal Home Entertainment are the others.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, all three said proceeding with a launch this year was imperative to gain a competitive advantage in the market over Blu-ray, which is not expected to be introduced here until mid-2006.

In recent weeks Paramount said the studio would not be releasing 20 titles on HD this year as planned. New Line, which distributes through Warner, recently said it would not be releasing the 10 titles it had announced for this year. Warner and Universal have been waffling on how many, if any, of the dozens of titles they had announced would be released, hinging their timing on the launch of the first HD DVD players.

Officials at the three studios were not immediately available Thursday to comment on Toshiba’s emails or statement.

The news deals another blow to the HD DVD camp, which has seen previous fence-riders Fox and Lions Gate join the Blu-ray side in recent weeks.

(Paul Sweeting is a reporter for Variety sister publication DVD Exclusive.)