Biz agenda at CES: Strive for HD clarity

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LAS VEGAS -- For the home entertainment industry, this year's Consumer Electronics Show was the comfort zone.

Instead of launching new products or innovations, the overriding mission for home entertainment executives at the 40th annual CES was to make existing products and services more user-friendly after spending much of last year rolling out high-definition discs and movie downloads that have yet to really catch on with consumers.

On the packaged-media front, a concerted effort was made to end or at least minimize the format war between Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD that observers say has stymied growth since the next-gen discs debuted last year.

The Blu-ray Disc camp, supported by all the major studios except Universal as well as most consumer electronics manufacturers, distributed a mock newspaper that declared the format's victory "inevitable."

The HD DVD side rolled into the Las Vegas Convention Center its huge mobile road show to give showgoers an up-close, hands-on encounter with what it calls "The Look and Sound of Perfect."

The studios also announced ambitious release schedules of next-gen titles, topped by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's vow to release up to 100 Blu-ray titles in 2007, including hot new theatricals that will arrive in stores the same day as the standard DVD. Buena Vista Home Entertainment also gave the Blu-ray format a significant boost by announcing the release this year of both "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies and "Cars."

But perhaps the biggest overture to consumers came from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group, which announced plans Tuesday to release a dual-format Total High-Definition Disc, with Blu-ray content on one side and HD DVD content on the other.

The move -- accompanied by an announcement from LG Electronics that a dual-format player would be out in February, followed by dual-format computer drives -- was portrayed as an attempt to ease retailer and consumer "confusion and hesitancy," in the words of Warner Bros. chairman and CEO Barry Meyer, who hosted a gala press event at the Bellagio to hail the new initiative. Meyer said he feared "a confusing format dilemma will result in slower consumer adoption of HD technology."

He's not alone. Studio home entertainment executives at the show, while maintaining that high-def discs are catching on faster than DVD did in the same time frame, nevertheless expressed alarm that consumers simply aren't getting the high-def message.

Research from the NPD Group showed that just 10% of consumers surveyed said they planned on buying a high-def disc player in the next six months. And while 85% of consumers think they are buying high-definition discs, 59% of them don't a high-def disc machine.

On the electronic delivery front, the big buzz was bridging new media with old. Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger vowed to spread familiar Disney characters across the Internet and build more "virtual worlds," like the new Web game based on the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies. Sony announced plans to bring AOL, Yahoo! and Grouper content -- including short video clips created by users -- to its new line of TV sets. Microsoft chief Bill Gates said he'd like the see the Xbox 360 move beyond gaming and be used to view video content downloaded off the Internet.

In movie-download circles, efforts continued to allow consumers to burn downloaded content onto standard DVDs, most recently with a new alliance between CinemaNow and Intel Corp. that lets consumers using PCs equipped with Intel's Viiv technology legally burn major movies to discs playable on standard set-top DVD machines.

"I've only been here an hour, but I can already see it's all about getting content from the computer to the TV," NPD Group analyst Russ Crupnick said.
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