B'buster stores represent a patch of Blu-ray heaven

HD DVD is absent from rollout

In a move that could tip the scales in the format war, Blockbuster Inc. said Monday that it will begin offering only Blu-ray Disc titles among its high-definition rental selections at 1,700 company-owned stores.

The No. 1 video rental chain, which operates more than 4,200 company-owned locations among 8,300 stores worldwide, said it will continue to offer rival HD DVD (and Blu-ray) at a select 250 stores that have carried both formats since their November launches.

Blockbuster offers rentals in both formats online.

The availability of more than 170 rental titles in Blu-ray by mid-July comes as a result of new consumer rental trends that apparently have moved away from HD DVD, according to Matthew Smith, senior vp merchandising manager at Blockbuster.

Through Sunday, Blu-ray held a 66% market share compared with HD DVD (34%), according to Nielsen VideoScan. The format held a 67% market share since the beginning of the year and 59% share since the launches of both formats.

All major studios with the exception of Universal Studios Home Entertainment (HD DVD only) release titles primarily in Blu-ray and some HD DVD.

Smith said that regardless of format, the increased demand for Blu-ray augured well for consumer adoption of high-definition packaged media.

"Obviously, when customers are ready, we can expand the Blu-ray offerings into more stores and add HD DVD to more locations if that's what customers tell us they want," Smith said. "We'll continue to work with the movie studios to ensure we have the right assortment of products."

David Bishop, president of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment — the leading studio backer of Blu-ray — said Blockbuster's decision reflects consumer rental preferences that would be soon duplicated at sell-through.

"It sends a strong message to consumers," he said. "It really starts to clarify the (format) issue to the consumer."

Bishop said Blu-ray is experiencing a 70% advantage over HD DVD at retail — a percentage he believes is exponentially higher at rental due the proliferation of video game rentals for PlayStation 3, which features a Blu-ray drive. In other words, gamers come to Blockbuster for a game, then try out a Blu-ray movie.

"There's a spillover effect," Bishop said.

Ken Graffeo, co-president of the HD DVD Group and executive vp of Universal Studios Home Entertainment, said Blockbuster's intention was not to declare a winner in the format war. He said it should be noted that Blockbuster is keeping HD DVD available online, where the rental giant expects to see the majority of its growth.

"The rental aspect of HD DVD or Blu-ray is so small right now, it is way too early to see any kind of volume out of it," he said.

Erik Gruenwedel is senior editor at Home Media Magazine.