Video Downloads: The Bull in the China Shop?

I predicted years ago that we would be downloading music over the Internet long before high quality downloads were possible. That's the state we're in at present. Downloads that offer genuine CD-quality sound (forget about downloads up to SACD or DVD-Audio standards) are still more a promise than a reality.

The inevitable chatter about video downloads began a couple of years ago with the launch of several movie download sites. A recent article in the business section of USA Today (March 8, 2007) summed up the current state of movie distribution over the Internet.

As the article listed the pros and cons of downloading, it struck me that there's not much on the positive side for the consumer, apart from convenience. You need a high speed, broadband Internet connection. The cost to download a film is comparable to that of the DVD, but without the features. It takes an hour or more to rip a standard definition movie to your hard drive. The few services that currently offer movie downloads often require different (downloadable) software, and consumers with a Macintosh computer can apparently forget about any service but iTunes. You can easily play back downloaded content on your computer monitor (Dreamgirls on a desktop—Baby Love!) or perhaps a video iPOD (Lord of the Rings on a 3-inch screen—priceless!), but moving the playback to the TV in the family room requires more gear and computer savvy than most consumers can muster. And, in general, downloaded films can't be moved off your hard drive, say onto a DVD. That not only limits portability, but also leaves you with no backup. Hard drives have been known to crash. If yours does, you can say goodbye to your entire downloaded movie collection, ripped at $15 a pop.

While there are also plusses to downloading, most of them would appear to benefit only the movie industry. For the studios, there are no packaging or distribution costs. Nor are there any risks of unsold inventory (which studios now buy back from retailers).

In fact, if movie downloading does take off, the potential financial benefits to movie studios could put brakes on their desire to continue releasing films in any sort of packaged format—or at least significantly increase prices of films on disc. That's a bit scary for those of us who not only collect films and TV shows, but who also want to see and hear them in something better than sub-DVD (or even sub-VHS) quality.

Music downloading is now well-entrenched. But it's a far different animal than movie downloads. It doesn't take long to download a song or two, particularly if you're willing to settle for the degraded audio experience that the higher levels of compression offer—an experience that apparently satisfies many listeners.

But compared to the high definition programming now available from cable, satellite, or over-the-air, the compromised video quality from a fast (?) download will be obvious to many, if not most, viewers. And the differences will be painfully obvious on the increasingly popular, big-screen high definition televisions.

The article mentions the inferior audio and video quality of even standard definition downloads, so it's not surprising that it avoided a discussion of high definition downloads. We're a long way from practical delivery of high definition program material over the Internet. The big problem, for anything much longer than a trailer or a short music video, is download time. Efforts to speed up the process are certain to work against quality. The demonstrations I've seen so far of systems aimed toward fast, "high definition" on-line delivery have not been promising. If the images in those demos can be called "high definition," then high definition has lost its meaning.

The article dismissed HD on discs with a dismal prediction of its market potential, largely due to the format war. But while neither HD DVD nor Blu-ray has yet reached the tipping point that will guarantee success, high definition video in general is exploding. As more and more consumers become accustomed to better pictures and sound from their television experiences, the advantages of HD on a packaged disc, whether it turns out to be Blu-ray or HD DVD, should become obvious.

But this format war needs to end, hopefully before next fall's holiday shopping season. And movie studios need to be less greedy. $35 for a high definition title (after discounts) can only throw cold water on both HD the formats. If the standard DVD release streets at $20, the HD version should be $25, tops. Yes, there those of us who will pay premium prices to get our high definition fix, but we're not a big enough group to create the mass market that the film studios crave, and need, to fully support a high definition disc format. And in the long term a single, relatively affordable, true high definition disc format will benefit both the industry and the consumer.