Mondo Audio (by Ken Kessler; Audio magazine, June 1997)

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Stupid Is As Stupid Does

What's the term for not learning from one's mistakes? Or what do you call being angry with yourself for being surprised by the inevitable? I'm sure the Germans have some cool nine-syllable word for both, but let's just stick with "stupid" to cover either mode of behavior. That's how I feel for allowing myself to expect DVD to have rolled out without a hitch and with some kind of sensible marketing.

It's like this: Even though I was born well after the end of World War II, I have lived through the launches and failures of more formats than a half-century should yield. Without turning to my library of yellowing hi-fi magazines, I can tell my son that I was born just before the 7-inch 45-rpm disc became the format for singles and the 33 1/3-rpm stereo LP became viable.

As a kid, I saw the first cassettes and even some other, pre-Elcaset open-reels-in-shells formats. There were 8-track cartridges, myriad analog four-channel systems that were 25 years too early, dbx-encoded LPs, and that absurd RCA system for videodiscs that used a stylus.

I was actually a retailer when the great Betamax-versus-VHS-versus-Video 2000 battle took place. And then there are all the digital delights, from DCC and MiniDisc and DAT to the dominant 5-inch CD-based systems.

Why this wander down Memory Lane? It's simply to remind all and sundry that the hi-fi and video industries refuse to learn from past mistakes or to respect the consumers they bleed. So the industry is just as guilty of arch stupidity for launching yet another format before it's ready as I am for letting it surprise me.

By now it's painfully obvious that the cause of all our woes is the decreasing amount of time the industry is willing to allow to pass between format launches. Black vinyl discs lived three-quarters of a century before CD reared its head. Open-reel tape (which was never anything other than a niche product) was around for 20 years before the cassette emerged. But before CD had even reached its Bar Mitzvah, the bean counters were launching other digital formats, each and every one succeeding at nothing more than confusing the consumer. DAT? DCC? MiniDisc? Who actually thought that anyone needed them, let alone wanted them? At least DVD has one bit of back re ward compatibility in its favor, one which will serve it much better than did DCC's backward compatibility with analog cassettes. DCC's ability to play analog cassettes wasn't enough to woo consumers when they learned that it couldn't record on them as well. As DVD-for the foreseeable future-is a playback only medium, its ability to play conventional music only. CDs is enough to convince a number of indecisive buyers to invest in the new format's hardware. It means that they will have access to 50,000+ CDs to play on the day they bring home their shiny new machines, should actual DVD software be a long time coming. And, should DVD totally flame out, these folks will still have a device that can serve as a normal CD player. Or, to put it another way, DVD (hardware) is a no-lose situation for the buyer for that reason alone.

For this, the hardware industry should be patted on its collective, if pointed, little head. Some of us think that those who gave the go-ahead for DVD when CD hasn't even penetrated 40% of the (prosperous) world's homes should have their ears filled with battery acid. But at least they did do the one decent thing this time by ensuring that no owner of a DVD player will be stuck with a future software-free zone. Even so, how can the industry warrant the confusion caused by a new format, itself a variant of two other systems yet to reach their own market plateau? For every seasoned audiophile who thinks that CD is old hat after 15 years, there are 10,000 civilians who still think it's the future. As for the second system that spawned the bastard mutant DVD-home cinema-well, that's had even less market penetration than CD, if you define home cinema as multichannel sound and a bigger TV and not just the ownership of a VCR. Because things change quickly, please realize that this is being written roughly two months before it sees print. So anything written today about DVD could be rendered meaningless in a flash. It's just that a mere three weeks ago, I attended a press conference here in the United Kingdom at which a key player in DVD's development showed its new wares for 1997 to a large contingent of journalists. But solid DVD info? Zilch. The company couldn't say much about DVD-Audio standards, software availability (film or audio-only), or what multichannel surround system is likely to be foisted off on Europeans. And nothing on the question that keeps me surfing the Net: Have the geographical release zones been established yet? [Yes.-Ed.] Now I, as an expatriate American, know that 99.999% of the United States population thinks that the world is flat and that venturing beyond Cape Cod or Malibu will result in one becoming fodder for those who live near the parts on the map that say "Here Be Monsters." Quite simply, you guys don't give a damn where the various other countries fit into the scheme of releases, so long as Americans get their DVD releases before everyone else (and with Dolby Digital, to boot). Meanwhile, people in Greece are wondering if their DVD releases will be tied into, say, Paraguay, while Koreans might have to share their discs with Ugandans or Laplanders.

Why is this important? So that DVD doesn't end up half-realized in the rest of the world, like laserdisc. Penetration of laserdisc never reached anything like the levels it should have because the film industry ensured that only the United States (and Japan, of course) has been fed a steady flow of discs worth owning. The excuse? "Uh, gee, guys, America and Japan use NTSC but you use PAL, so tough luck." And, to be fair, NTSC versus PAL was a major technical concern.

But the hardware boys made laserdisc players that could play both formats, only it happened too late. So now it's about as easy to buy NTSC laserdiscs in Europe as it is to buy crack. No, forget that: It's easier to buy crack.

What everyone conveniently forgets is that laserdiscs stayed high-priced in America because the U.S. on its own wasn't big enough to endow laserdiscs with economies of scale. In other words, if the same laserdiscs had been available all over the world, they would cost less today and sell in greater numbers, in turn blessing the film industry with more profit than it can make by simply fleecing hard-core laserdisc-loving videophiles.

With DVD and the wonders of digitalia, there's no need to create another Us and Them scenario. Nearly every TV sold in Europe this decade accepts NTSC signals, but that's not the real problem: It's Hollywood, which wants as many bites from the cherry as it can possibly nibble. And Hollywood has lots of teeth, microscopic enough to make a meal of a maraschino.

Stated simply, video DVDs are to be sold according to zones. If the software boys have their way, they could even insist (horrors!) that music-only DVDs be sold similarly, with the same regionalism. A DVD bought in the U.S. will not play on a machine purchased in, say, Switzerland, by virtue of a chip inside the player that tells the machine that its owner was a naughty boy for buying a DVD copy of Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls while on holiday in Orlando, when he should have waited another six months and paid twice as much for the official Swiss release.

This is the kind of absurd behavior that could only come from the software industry, the same paranoids who think that some guy in Copenhagen pressing 1,000 bootleg copies of a Nine Inch Nails gig that's never going to be released officially will cause the downfall of Western Civilization. The same neurotics who swore that analog cassettes-never mind DAT-would lead to so much home taping that the record industry would disappear. DVD protectionism comes in the form of ensuring that discs bought in the country that enjoys the lowest prices in the world (the U.S.) won't play anywhere else. So film companies can release movies in U.S. theaters six months ahead of, say, Europe. Then, when the VHS tapes or the DVDs come out in the U.S., the movie can be released to theaters in Europe without any worries about its public having had access to tapes or DVDs. And six months or a year later, the Europeans will get their DVDs, with a 50% higher price tag. So the U.S. discs can stay under $25 or be sold for whatever price is deemed supportable.

What? You didn't know that audio CDs in the U.S. were subsidized by Europe, where a regular CD can cost upwards of $20? And still I'm amazed when I read letters in the American press about the rip-off prices of CDs in the U.S. Stupid, huh?

(adapted from Audio magazine, Jun. 1997)

Also see:

Mondo Audio--The X-Factor (by Ken Kessler) (March 1997)

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Updated: Sunday, 2018-09-09 9:37 PST