This article first appeared in Neo #50, 2008.
Back in April 2003, I attended the Tokyo demonstration of Blu-ray. I rushed home trilling about the benefits of an entire TV series on a single disc! Except this was precisely what the Japanese TV industry didn’t want. At meetings with expensive biscuits all over Tokyo, people fretted about Perceived Value. It’s all very well, they said, to cram the entirety of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis onto a single disc, but how much can we charge for it? Will our target 16-year-old buyer really drop £100 all at once on that single disc, particularly if he’s never seen an episode beforehand?
This argument, however, was swept under the carpet, because nobody expected it to be an issue. Blu-ray was never intended for that purpose. It wasn’t there to host ten hours of TV, it was there to allow two hours of movie to stretch out and relax. It was, after all, built to store the much higher memory requirements of HDTV.
Now, I’m ready to believe that if I spend a thousand quid on this or that television set, and upgrade my stereo so it has industrial grade speakers, and basically pimp my lounge into some kind of entertainment temple, that I can get the full benefit of, say, a Blu-ray disc of Ghost in the Shell 2. Those high-definition images will be pin-sharp, that super sound will blow my walls out. But not everything is a movie made with digital technology in mind. Is there really going to be anything on a Blu-ray of Casablanca that will justify me buying all those upgrades?
Many distributors have yet to properly realise the potential in DVD, and yet now they are expected to sell us Blu-ray. Some readers of this column may be eccentric and obsessive-compulsive millionaires who simply must own the newest and latest gadget, but what about teenagers who habitually watch their movies on a titchy laptop? Is Blu-Ray going to make that big a difference to them?
And what about the majority of content, like TV anime from older master tapes that simply don’t have that kind of high resolution? Will you really lose any sleep if you “only” have the DVD of Urusei Yatsura? Do you really want to replace your entire movie collection again?
I’ll tell you who’s going to love Blu-ray the most. Pirates.
Last time I was in Beijing, a grimy man with a box of DVDs offered me Brokeback Mountain for 30c. How long will it be before he’s holding the entirety of The West Wing for a dollar? All of Battlestar Galactica on just four Blu-rays? Sure, it won’t be Blu-ray quality, but it’ll be DVD quality, and wasn’t that good enough for the last ten years? The “perceived value” of Blu-ray to pirates may be more than anyone could have predicted.