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DVD-Audio Off To A Slow Start

by Debbie Galante Block

September 22, 2020 | "Show me the titles!" DVD-Audio seems to be following in the footsteps of its older sister DVD-ROM. Everyone says it's going to be "big." Everyone says they "support" it. But in October 1999, when a 16-year-old Norwegian teenager Jon Johansen allegedly managed to crack CSS, DVD's original copy protection, the music industry apparently got nervous. A new version of CSS has not yet been completed, so, just as it came time to announce titles available before Christmas, the major labels said that "until the copy protection issue is resolved, there are not going to be any DVD-Audio titles on the market."

Although industry estimates seem to change daily, as of October only 30 DVD-Audio titles are expected to be available industry-wide by the end of the year. This dearth of titles persists despite the fact that playback hardware has been available from Panasonic since the 4th of July, and DVD-Audio-capable editing and authoring systems are available from several vendors. Industry analysts expect BMG to have at least eight titles out this year, but a company spokesperson would neither confirm or deny this. "We are working out licensing details and are hoping to launch this Fall," she said.

Meanwhile, Sony and Philips are moving full speed ahead with plans for their competitive high-density audio format, Super Audio CD (SACD). Sony and Philips have announced a November release date for combination DVD/SACD players. It?s an interesting move when one considers that these machines will play DVD-Video but not than DVD-Audio. Although Sony and Philips are members of the DVD Forum, they are also the creators of SACD, a format initially proposed as the specification for DVD-Audio. When the forum decided not to choose SACD, Sony launched the format on its own. As of September 1, Sony had about 65 SACD titles on the market and expects to have about 40 more by the end of the year, according to Leslie Cohen, vice president of business development for Sony Music. Titles are also available from smaller labels such as Water Lily and Telarc.

Many of the first SACD titles released were of the jazz and classical music genres, but pop titles are also now becoming available from artists such as Jennifer Lopez, Gloria Estefan, and Billy Joel. "We think you will find SACD becoming more of a mainstream format within the next few months," said Cohen. What do replicators have to say about all of this? With the exception of Sony Disc Manufacturing, most replicators seemed to have little faith in the future success of SACD. However, those interviewed say they are ready, willing and able to make DVD-Audio once the labels order product. But as of mid-September they were still waiting. A few replicators did say that overall, the holiday busy season is off to a slow start. Potential clients as well as their own competitors were said to be trying to secure CD and DVD capacity for October in anticipation of a late-blooming Christmas rush. However, it doesn't appear that DVD-Audio is a major part of label and replicator planning despite new CD releases expected from the Backstreet Boys, Christina Aguiliera, Madonna, and Ricky Martin.

Sean Smith, senior vice president of marketing for JVC Disc America, is still optimistic. "I think DVD-Audio will happen this year. JVC has launched a player. It'll take about a year and a half to two years to get the installed base going. All of the majors have titles planned. We've seen them. Many release dates are in fourth quarter."

Sonopress has made a product demo with AIX Media, according to Bob Spiller, Sonopress president. "We can watermark the content, but we're waiting for the latest encryption scheme from the DVD Forum's working group." Spiller said. "The latest info I have is that it hasn't yet been sanctioned."

Once the encryption technology is finalized, how long will it take replicators to swing into action? Not long, they?ve said. "We need to make sure we have the right encryption technologies installed, but that should be no big deal. We also might have to make minor modifications in the way that we master, but other than that, we're ready to start producing in a standard DVD mode," Spiller said.

John Town, corporate director of research and development, Technicolor Video Services, said that a module to do the encryption will need to be added to the line, but that should not be a problem. "We've been offered the module as a beta only, but we really haven't had the demand from major clients yet. And, I don't think that will change for us this Christmas. However, long-term, we believe in the format, and that one day your set-top boxes and computers will be able to play DVD-Video and DVD-Audio. For the luxury car, too, DVD-Audio will be a good application. The format will find a niche."

Cinram sees DVD-Audio developing with major labels during the fall and increasing into 2001 as the installed base of hardware increases. "We are already working with some of our major customers in the development of their initial DVD-Audio products and are currently able to provide complete manufacturing services for this product," said Ned Insley, vice president of sales and marketing.

Why The Lack of Enthusiasm For DVD-A? Could it be the cost factors attributed to DVD-Audio that are holding back its introduction? Replicators doubt it. "It will be more expensive to produce masters for DVD-Audio, but media replication costs will be the same as they are for DVD-Video. Master costs are higher because it is multi-channel and high-definition," said Town.

Consumers want high-quality sound. That's been proven as music video sales, which were always lackluster on VHS, have been a rollicking success on DVD. Most music video titles are still being released on both DVD and VHS. One label executive said sales are tracking approximately 50/50 right now, but that's expected to change as the installed based of DVD players grows. In the UK, DVD music videos are tracking much stronger than VHS overall at a ratio of about 70 to 30, she said.

One technology that could be slowing the enthusiasm of DVD-Audio is digital downloading. "There's this pent-up demand that labels know is out there, and Napster is filling it. A tremendous amount of energy seems to be going down that path for this busy season. It's a proven market. It appears, DVD-Audio is a second step," Spiller theorized.

Perhaps DVD-Audio will not stun the music market the way DVD-Video has, but neither did stereo on its inception. It slowly overtook mono and became standard as people replaced mono Victrolas with stereos. If the price is right, DVD-Audio could be part of the music industry's evolution in much the same way, analysts say.

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