Digital Video Dud?

1As the Next Big Thing in consumer electronics is introduced, Australia is once again feeling the tyranny of distance from the world's major markets

2DVD (Digital Video Disc, recently rechristened 'Digital Versatile Disc') has long been hyped as the next step in the digital revolution of home entertainment. A good decade after the audio CD began to replace LPs as the premier sound carrier medium, it is now video's turn to become digital. DVD, which in many aspects constitutes the next generation of CD technology, has inherited many of its ancestor's features -- the handy and robust physical format of the individual CD-like discs, superior picture and sound quality (especially when compared with VHS tapes) which doesn't degrade with multiple viewings, and the convenience of direct access to particular tracks and sections of the disc, without rewinding. As a second-generation medium, DVD also adds the enhanced gadgetry that was still beyond the CD's technological horizon -- DVDs offer multiple versions of a movie on one disc (e.g., standard and director's cuts, pan-and-scan, letterbox, and 16:9 editions, PG- to R-rated versions, alternative endings), up to eight alternative soundtracks (Dolby Stereo, Dolby Surround, various foreign-language overdubbed versions), a total of 32 sets of optional subtitles, and further interactive control options for the viewer.

3Such enhancements are partly due to the much-increased storage capacity of the DVD when compared to CDs: in addition to a sevenfold increase in capacity per surface area, DVDs can also double and quadruple that increase by carrying data on both sides of a disc, and by offering two surface layers of information per side. In keeping with the general trend towards an integration of various entertainment and computing technologies, then, DVDs will also gradually replace standard audio CDs (most DVD players can also play audio CDs, making the transition even easier) and CD-ROMs (DVD-ROMs, which are able to read older CD-ROMs, are already on the market).

4It is the consumer video market, however, where DVD has been expected to make its biggest impact -- and more than a year after its market introduction in the U.S., the signs there are positive. Around 350,000 DVD players have been sold, over 600 DVD titles are now available, video stores are setting up DVD rental sections, and even the major LaserDisc and video Internet mail-order stores like Ken Crane's or Movienow! are offering DVDs. Comparisons with the triumph of CDs over vinyl break down quickly, however, since those two technologies were fundamentally similar read-only media -- by contrast, the technology DVD has set out to supersede, VHS, is also a recording medium (recordable DVDs are still some way into the future; even recordable CDs are only now appearing at affordable prices). DVD, therefore, is targetted more at the growing 'home cinema' market, that is, at consumers who value quality vision and sound over recordability (they are likely to own a hi-fi VCR anyway). The satisfactory, but ultimately limited market LaserDiscs have been able to carve out for themselves in competition with VHS serves as a caution against overestimating the inevitability of success for the DVD campaign.

5In the course of that campaign, it is now Australia's turn, and the technology's move beyond the borders of such unified, self-contained national markets as North America points out a number of mostly self-inflicted problems which may very well reduce DVD to a digital video dud, for the time being. The availability of DVD hardware is unlikely to present much of an obstacle, but it is software choice which will ultimately determine the acceptance of any new entertainment medium. With Village Roadshow having jumped the gun for the official Australian DVD roll-out that was slated for Easter '98, there were originally only a total of nine titles available in Australia -- mixing the Australian flavour of Shine, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and an ABC production of the opera La Bohème with an odd assortment of international movies: Dumb & Dumber, The Crow, Wild Rhapsody, Evita, The Mask, and Seven.

6That merely such a handful of titles are available (the entry of other distributors into the Australian market has not significantly increased the volume) is due to a particular arrangement of the future world market for DVDs into various zones -- these are:

1. North America
2. Europe, the Middle East, South Africa, Japan
3. South East Asia
4. Middle and South America, Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea
5. Russia, the remainders of Asia and Africa
6. China

7On the surface, such a division makes sense for various reasons: movie tastes will differ markedly from region to region, and differences in video standards (the use of PAL or NTSC systems) also mean that DVDs from one region may not play on another region's players. (With the growing market share of dual-system TVs, such technical distinctions are beginning to lose importance, though.) Mainly, however, the regions soon emerge clearly as instruments to counteract the increasing globalisation of trade in entertainment content -- they were demanded by Hollywood's studios, designed specifically so that DVDs of recent movies would not enter a particular region before the movie had run its course in the region's cinemas, and they exist to protect the status quo of video distribution rights which has come under threat from globally operating mail-order video stores. Europeans wanting to buy a copy of Armageddon on DVD, for example, would have to wait until the disc was available in their region, and couldn't simply get the U.S. release that came out after the movie had finished its theatrical run there, months ago.

8To ensure that they indeed would not order DVDs from another region, technical barriers have been implemented in players and discs: in essence, Australian-made players will only play Australian-made discs, for example -- a DVD that was made for the American 'region one' will simply refuse to play. Only die-hard movie fans, the DVD producers hope, will make the effort to also buy their DVD player in the U.S. (this would force them to buy all their discs there, too -- Australian-made discs wouldn't play). This strange form of inverted protectionism (a protection of the local market from imports, put into place by a transnational consortium), then, is the reason that despite the relative abundance of DVD titles in region one only such few are available in Australia -- none of the overseas ones would play on the local region four machines.

9The prospects for Australian DVD consumers appear bleak, then: having been included in the wildly heterogeneous 'rest of the Western world' group of region four, Australia seems unlikely to enjoy a great influx of major titles anytime soon -- while the Middle and South American markets within the region are too large to ignore for DVD manufacturers, they are likely to encourage a selection of DVDs that is significantly at variance with Australian movie interests. At the same time, the English-speaking component of the region is simply too small to make any great effort addressing: in the immediate future, the combined markets of Australia and New Zealand are likely to produce a few hundred DVD-equipped households at best. Australia, then, is once again about to feel the tyranny of its distance from the areas with which it feels the greatest cultural affinity, is once again about to be overlooked as a small player amongst the larger markets of North America and Europe, and is this time even technologically restrained from attaching itself to these markets.

10At least in Australia, then, the industry's decision to counteract the growing trend of market globalisation that has led to consumers' increased use of international mail-order services, particularly with the help of computerised shopping on the Internet's World Wide Web, may come back to haunt it. Should DVD in Australia turn out to be a digital video dud in the next few years, in fact, distributors may want to seriously rethink their positioning of the country in region four, moving it instead to the better-suited, larger-market regions one or two. In any event, the continuing convergence of home entertainment and computer technology also offers some hope for Australian movie fans: the regional division makes much less sense in DVD-ROM drives for computers (which will also play movie DVDs), since the software market is a global one, and so those drives are more likely to offer ways of overriding regional coding -- as the computer becomes the central element in the home entertainment system, then, it may remove the regional barriers which the movie industry has imposed on us.