Delayed delivery focus of digital summit

Hurdles remain in distributing films, TV programs

A symposium staged by a home entertainment trade group Tuesday framed the many possibilities of digital distribution and its still-nascent status in Hollywood.

To wit: More than a decade after computer-desktop players started streaming video, Web surfers still regularly need to download new software to access content on disparate sites. And forget about that much vaunted computer-to-living room connection happening for the masses anytime soon.

Hurdles ranging from tech complexity to a blizzard of data standards in need of sorting remain to be overcome before digital delivery will be ready for literal or figurative primetime. That was the collective message from panelists at the Entertainment Merchants Assn.'s Digital Media Pipeline.

"The ubiquity of turning on a device and making it work -- that's what we're after," EMA executive vp Mark Fisher told a Skirball Center audience of 100 including digirati and digiphobes alike.

Despite lingering challenges for those digitally distributing films and TV programming, studio reps said they were committed to offering such content more quickly.

"It's about manipulating things a little bit to maximize your revenue," Universal vp broadband tech Bill Mandel said.

But don't expect the theatrical window to narrow dramatically anytime soon. "It's almost going to take a whole generation to move things along," Mandel said.

The Universal executive said the studio would be inclined to experiment more with the simultaneous release of films on multiple platforms if security concerns over digital distribution could be addressed more fully, perhaps through a dedicated broadband spectrum. The spread of 3D cinema will secure a prosperous future for theatrical releases, regardless of any tinkering with distribution windows, he added.

Digital research group Interpret offered stats showing a 44% jump in online-video viewership between June and January. But the same firm noted survey respondents spend an average of six hours a week watching Internet video and films compared with 22 hours viewing traditional TV and eight listening to the radio.

But there was a pervasive sense of inevitability to much of the discussion.

Digital delivery of content eventually will become more the norm than at present. So Hollywood must continue to work on viable business models that engage consumers at reasonable price points, speakers said.

TAG Strategic consultant Ted Cohen, a former EMI executive, pointed to the music industry's dramatic decline as an object lesson in doing too little too late.

"The music industry blew it," he said.
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