Flashback 1997: The First DVD Players Arrive

Twenty years ago this month, the first DVD players were introduced in the U.S. after numerous false starts and delays over copyright concerns raised by Hollywood movie studios. DVD offered better picture quality than VHS tape plus the convenience of a CD-like disc that wasn’t prone to wear.

Panasonic introduced the DVD-A300 (top in photo) and Toshiba offered two players—the SD-3006 and the SD-2006 (bottom in photo), which followed the launch of the SD-3000 player in Japan five months earlier. The players sold for $750, $699, and $599, respectively, which were considered reasonable prices for new technology—especially the SD-2006.

The players could be set for 16:9 or 4:3 as the squarish 4:3 was the dominant TV aspect ratio at the time (and would remain so for some years to come). The SD-3006, Toshiba’s step-up to the SD-2006, added a component-video output and an additional analog audio output.

Warner Home Video announced the first slate of movies on DVD with 32 titles ranging in price from $19.99 to $24.99. The rollout was initially limited to seven cities withTwister being among the first batch of DVD movies to be released in the U.S.

Almost 19,000 discs were purchased in the first two weeks and by December 1997 more than 1 million DVDs had been shipped, representing about 530 titles. Uptake of the new format was swift: By the end of 1999, more than 100 million discs had been shipped, representing some 5,000 titles.

The Audio Engineering Society (AES) offers a summary of key events leading up the launch of DVD, excerpted here:

1993 – The first versions of the Digital Video Disc (DVD) were developed by two competing consortiums. Toshiba/Warner developed the Super Density Disc and Sony/Philips developed the Multimedia Compact Disc. "In the early 1990s, different companies began working on a further development of CD technology a disc of similar size but much greater capacity. The two forefathers to DVD were SD (Super density) disc from a consortium lead by Toshiba and Time Warner and MMCD (Multimedia CD) from a consortium lead by Sony and Philips. In developing a new standard, it was extremely important to satisfy the needs of both the computer and the movie industries. Both industries wanted a small disc solution that guaranteed CD compatibility. In September 1995, all companies involved agreed to the common set of standards. The DVD consortium could thus avoid a replay of the VHS and Betamax battle that split the analog video world in the early 1980s. The results: DVD is one standard for all fields of application." (Toshiba)

1994 – Nimbus Technology & Engineering (NTE) with Time Warner and Toshiba began development of the DVD disc format. "In 1994 the Company's high industry profile and reputation for technological innovation helped to attract two significant commissions. The first, from Eastman Kodak Company, required a specialist mastering system both for their research into CD-R (recordable CDs) and to support their production requirements for an explosive growth in demand. The second commission was from Time Warner, who, together with Toshiba Corporation, were developing a new high density format able to contain full length movies. This format is now known as DVD. NTE installed the very first production proven DVD mastering system in Time Warner's U.S. manufacturing plant in January 1995. We are now the leading supplier of DVD mastering equipment, with over 3 years more experience in this field than any of our competitors. The vast majority of discs now available were mastered using Nimbus equipment." (Nimbus)

1995 - By September, all companies in the DVD consortium agreed to DVD standards. Warner Advanced Media Operations (WAMO) and WEA Manufacturing, Warner's replicating division in Olyphant, Pennsylvania produced 650,000 commercial DVD discs. "The development of the DVD manufacturing system spanned three years and three continents. Gregg Johnson, Plant Manager for Preproduction said, 'We found ourselves in a very challenging position, we were assigned the task of launching DVD and virtually every aspect of the DVD manufacturing process needed to be designed… there was no off-the-shelf DVD equipment available in 1996." (WAMO)

1996 – In November, the first DVD players went on sale in Japan.

1997 – In March, the first DVD players went on sale in the U.S., with 349,482 players and 2 million discs sold by the end of the year. In April, Sony released its first commercial DVD player in the U.S., the model DVP-S7000. Sony's DVD plant in Terre Haute, Indiana, opened in the summer of 1997. The Digital Audio Disc Corporation (DADC) "was the first manufacturer of compact discs in the United States, recently celebrated the manufacture of its billionth compact disc and remains the largest CD manufacturing facility in the country today." (Sony press release 1/8/97)

Also see the DVD historical timeline at hometheaterforum.com.