Thoughts on Blu-ray Discs Versus Digital Downloads

Posted on by Larry

[ This article was first published in the January, 2009, issue of
Larry’s Final Cut Pro Newsletter. Click here to subscribe. ]

Jason Chong, writing in from Australia, sent me the following piece. In the midst of all the discussion on the viability of Blu-ray, he had an interesting perspective.

I love listening to The Buzz, it keeps me entertained, informed and most of all inspired about the industry.


I wanted to put my thoughts into the debate as to the distribution war between Blu-ray and the Internet.


We all hear the phrase “content is king” ad nauseam, but I think it’s an ideology that has been forgotten in this debate.


As a consumer, when I buy or hire a movie, I don’t just want to see the film, I also want to see the special features. I think for a lot of consumers, the decision to upgrade from VHS to DVD was less to do with quality, and more to do with extra content. There will always be early adopters who want to show off their big TV’s and latest sound systems, but for the mass market who plug their DVD player into their 4:3 TV, the quality isn’t nearly as important as the experience being offered around the feature.


And I think the same can be said about the format that will replace DVD. My problem with online distribution is that you get the movie, but you get nothing else in terms of commentaries, behind-the-scenes featurettes or interactivity. And it seems that if one of the formats was perfectly suited to give consumers not just their feature, but also extra goodies, it would be online.


Blu-ray offers extra content, but it is usually the content is just HD versions of what you get on the standard DVD. I believe that for the average consumer, while the experience change from VHS to DVD was a massive step up, DVD to Blu-ray is just StepHD. And therefore, why do we expect them to upgrade their existing home theatre equipment (in the meantime relegating all their current DVDs to the “old technology” pile) if we’re not offering them anything else apart from more pixels?


For an industry that stresses that it’s not simply that we have the technology to create amazing monsters, but what we make those monsters do that’s important, Hollywood has got caught up in it’s own hype, and forgotten that advancements in technology don’t equate to happier customers and therefore don’t equate to profit. If it doesn’t benefit the average viewer, why should they buy it?


At this stage, I have no intention to buy a Blu-ray player, or rent movies from iTunes as I don’t believe either of them offer me more value than a DVD with extra content.


What would make me want to jump on either wagon? That’s the billion dollar question. Back in the day, people could buy movies, then they could buy movies with supporting stuff about the movie. What’s next? A behind the scenes of the making of? I hope not, but I’d certainly be curious! Perhaps it utilizes the trend for people to combine all their entertainments onto a singular media centre (PC/AppleTV/PS3). Could they offer game demos? A movie/extra features/soundtrack/video game package? Access to Q&A sessions with the cast and crew? Social networking benefits?


I guess that’s up to content producers to figure out, see what works and what will disappear. I’m pretty excited by what’s coming next, but I think we’re still a fair way off.

Thanks for letting me rant, I’d love to hear your comments if you have any.

UPDATE – Jan. 7, 2009

Wiithin 30 seconds of each other, two divergent opinions appeared. The first is from Kit Laughlin, from Australia:

In addition to the excellent points raised by Jason is the following: all that additional content he refers to that is missing from digital downloads (in comparison to Blu-Ray DVDs) is *already* available on the present SD DVDs. So, there is an additional question to his, which is, “Why upgrade to Blu-Ray at all?”


Here’s my thinking: I have a very high quality Hitachi plasma (1.1m diagonal) which I view from about 2m. At this distance, the pixels are not discernible, and the viewing angle is about 1.5 times the width of an extended arm with spread fingers, and the images look real. By comparison, at ordinary viewing distance at the movies, the screen viewing angle is about two spread hands, or 2.5 if you like to sit closer than the middle. I have an excellent Mourdant-Short 5.1 sound system to complete the home setup.


My point is that a well-authored DVD (like “Blackhawk down” or “Minority Report”) looks incredibly rich, detailed, and sharp on this system, and although of course not the same as the true movie experience, a wonderful experience just the same. The overall image looks “gentle” and not digital, with very sharp details where the director intended this focus. By comparison, the demo Blu-Ray DVDs that I have seen look too sharp, and look fake, somehow. I know that to an extent this is habit and training of the brain, but to make another comparison, as a photographer these days, I use softening as much as I use sharpening in my Nikon full frame images to help these look like what we actually see.


[Perhaps] the step-up to Blu-Ray may not be a step up, if you already have a decent system.

Then came an alternate view from Lorin David Schultz:

I don’t think as many consumers care about extra “Special Features” content on DVD or Blu-Ray as Jason believes. People didn’t buy into DVD for extras, they did it for convenience and better quality, in the same way they dumped cassettes for CDs. The problem Blu-Ray faces is the same one that prevented acceptance of SACD: DVD crossed the threshold of “good enough.”


That’s a daunting enough challenge to overcome on its own, but there’s an even bigger problem. A growing number of consumers consider physical media of any kind superfluous.


I’m in the camp that doesn’t care much about “extra” content — I just want to see the movie, thanks — but I still want a physical disc. First, because the quality is invariably much better than a download, and second because storage is so much more convenient. No drives to manage, no libraries to keep current, just a little box on a shelf. Plus, archiving the media is not only easier, it’s safer to boot. I’ve lost so much material to file management mistakes and hardware failures over the years that I really appreciate having a comparatively robust offline storage solution.


But for any of that to be perceived as a benefit, we have to assume that I want to KEEP the material. The sense I get from informal observation of a reasonably broad demographic is that many people DON’T. They watch the movie once or twice and they’re done with it. They put an mp3 of a current hit song on their iPod then delete it when they get something new. They view entertainment content as largely disposable. They enjoy it for a while then they’re done with it. To them, physical media equals occupied storage space, which they view as undesirable.


In a world in which an inkjet print-out of a jpeg is considered a reasonable substitute for film and an mp3 file is an acceptable alternative to a CD, I don’t know whether the mass market is going to care that Blu-Ray is better quality than DVD.

Larry replies: Jason, Kit, and Lorin, thanks for sharing your opinions. These are all good things to think about as we try to discern where the future is taking us.

From my point of view, I think Blu-ray needs to do everything it can to be viable. If all it turns into is a delivery vehicle for Hollywood movies, I think it will be very easy to supplant with digital downloads. Which would be a shame, as the format offers significantly more.


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