Douglas Crockford

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September 2006

Suppose they gave a war and nobody watched?

The HD Disc Format War continues with no end in sight, much like other unpopular wars. The lack of immediate resolution hurts not only the principals (Toshiba and Sony) but also the consumer electronics industry in general and the content industry in general.

So in an amazing attempt to break the deadlock, Universal Studios president Craig Kornblau declared a winner. He delivered a position paper to the attendees of CEDIA Expo 2006 in Denver last Friday, saying "Look at the blogs, look at the reviews by the early adopters and even look at the mainstream media," concluding that one of the formats had maintained its advantage "and delivered on the promises of providing the best high definition image and sound quality at the best value for consumers today."

Did he just make that up? Is there actually any evidence that either format has gained any measure of acceptance? No. But we already know the truth, and the truth ain't working, so it is clearly time for another approach.

So which format did Kornblau select as the winner? Is it HD-DVD? Or is it Blu-Ray? What does it matter.

Downrez

The essential property of digital media is that it can be copied perfectly without introducing distortion or noise. This is a wonderful thing. But it is not an inalienable property. Operations that perform any kind of transformation will result in digital generation loss.

And then there is downrezzing, in which the operator of a delivery channel (such as broadcast, cable, satellite, or DVD) intentionally over-compresses the signal. This is done to increase channel capacity or reduce delivery cost. For example, more PPV or on demand channels can be made available by squeezing the quality out of the other channels.

Downrezzing is done all the time with video delivered over the internet, but people expect internet video to look like crap, so there is no disappointment. But the premium delivery systems are expected to produce beautiful pictures, particularly when they are promising High Definition. It turns out that there is no law or regulation that requires HDTV to look good. So it is not uncommon for systems to promise the theoretically beautiful HDTV, and then deliver the crappy looking downrezzed stuff instead. Maybe it is justifiable. Most viewers rate choice as vastly more important than high definition. And a huge fraction of viewers think they are watching HD when they are not, so why waste the bandwidth on them?

Phillip Cohen is a viewer who can tell the difference. He responded to DirecTV's promise of astonishing picture clarity and instead got the downrez. So he did what is every American citizen's birthright: He filed a class action suit. DirecTV argued that Cohen had received a customer agreement amendment envelope stuffer which contained an arbitration clause. Yesterday the Court of Appeals found that DirecTV's class action waiver was unconscionable, so it looks like the case will go to trial.

Since the Congress and the FCC have been derelict and incompetent, respectively, it is up to the courts again to look after the interests of the rest of us. Stay tuned.