Will Digital Video Formats Change?

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HBO’s True Detective Season 1 in Amazon Instant Video format. Advertisers make it possible for Digital Media Mom to bring you great content each day for free, so thanks for your support.

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Yes, Digital Video Formats Probably WILL Change In The Future. But That Shouldn’t Stop You From Buying Digital Videos NOW.

The short answer on this is that so long as you’re buying digital videos from a major, well-established outlet like iTunes or Amazon, until 3D video becomes the standard (which won’t happen for many years—no-glasses 3D TV technology is still in the development stages and lots of technical and financial details still need to be worked out between digital video producers and the manufacturers of TVs and other audio-visual hardware ), when the next new format coming down the pike to consumers is delivered, your existing copies will simply be replaced by the new format at no cost. This is because the factors currently driving the next new format in digital video are very different than the main factor that drives new formats in videos on tape or disc (*cough*fleecing consumers*cough*), or that drive new formats that include totally new functionality (like 3D). Time for a little background.


A Brief History of Home Video

Back in the early days of home video, first there were Betamax tapes, followed soon by VHS. VHS tapes were smaller and had superior image and sound quality*, so it didn’t take long for Betamax to go away. Then came Laserdiscs, which were really only for cinephiles and videophiles because of the huge expense of players and the discs themselves. There’s no doubt that Laserdisc image and sound quality FAR exceed VHS, but the format never enjoyed wide adoption among consumers due to the expense factor.

*in fairness, there’s some debate on the quality issue – many enthusiasts feel Betamax had superior image quality

DVDs were the next major step forward. They provided near-Laserdisc quality at a much lower pricetag, and consumers were led to believe the DVD discs themselves were virtually indestructible and not subject to degradation over time the way VHS tapes are. We now know that’s not exactly true, but movies purchased on DVD will definitely outlive those on VHS. Consumers quickly moved to adopt the DVD format, believing it would be the last format they’d ever need to buy.

Then came Blu-ray discs. Blu-ray discs edge out DVD in the quality department, but for the average consumer, not by a wide enough margin to justify the expense or hassle of replacing a large, existing DVD library with more expensive Blu-ray discs. Especially since most Blu-ray disc players also play DVDs, and can “upsample” DVDs to closely approximate the image improvements in the native Blu-ray format.

Granted, the same kind of people who were all over Laserdiscs in the past feel very strongly that Blu-ray is VERY much superior in quality to DVD and TOTALLY worth the hassle and expense of upgrading an entire video library. But again, I’m talking about the average consumer here, someone for whom cost is typically just as big a consideration as image and sound quality, not the videophiles and cinephiles.

Given that the majority of average consumers are NOT videophiles or cinephiles, the main reason why movie studios and retailers quickly moved to start positioning DVD as a ‘dying’ format and Blu-ray as the superior successor was to get consumers to buy the same movies they’d already bought in DVD (and perhaps VHS as well, back in the day) in Blu-ray format. There are only so many “special editions” a studio can release in DVD format, after all, and consumers were starting to get fed up with this obvious cash-grab strategy.

So, just about the time consumers were on the horns of the DVD vs. Blu-ray dilemma, along came digital video to muddy the home video library waters even further. People who felt they’d been burned before by DVD usurping their VHS copies, ‘special edition’ DVDs usurping their ‘regular edition’ DVDs, and then Blu-ray usurping their entire DVD libraries, are understandably dubious about making the switch to yet ANOTHER format. But they shouldn’t be.


What’s Currently Driving New Digital Formats, and Why It Won’t Force Consumers To Buy Replacement Copies

The main obstacle to widespread adoption of digital video as of this writing is the file size. The higher the quality, the bigger the file size.

In order to stream or download a quality digital video, you need a high-speed internet connection. If you’re streaming or downloading that video on a mobile device with a limited data usage plan, streaming or downloading just a couple digital video movies in HD can very quickly burn through an entire month’s data usage allowance.

Companies that are in the business of supplying digital videos know that the only way they’re going to get most consumers on board is to make the files smaller, thereby eliminating data usage overage concerns and concerns about digital video hogging all the bandwidth at home on a consumer-grade internet connection.

Already, companies like Netflix are looking into special compression technologies that could make HD video files much smaller, and I’m pretty confident these new compressed files will be coming to a computer, mobile device or TV screen near you within a few years. However, that doesn’t mean videos you’ve previously bought won’t work anymore. Anything you’ve bought from iTunes or Amazon will simply be replaced in the ‘cloud’ with the new, compressed file, and it won’t look any different to you on the viewing end.

It HAS to be this way because all of our hardware has been optimized for existing video formats, and while it may be in Netflix’s, Amazon’s and Apple’s best interest to create this new file compression system to win more customers, they know it won’t work if consumers must replace all their existing electronic gadgets to take advantage of the new format. If that were the case, the cost savings on data plan usage would be blown out of the water by the hardware expense. There wouldn’t be a good enough reason to make the switch.

I’ve already experienced a lot of this type of automatic replacement of my Amazon Instant Videos in cases where the original I purchased didn’t have closed captions and a newer version was produced with captions. The next time I went to watch an affected video, presto! Captions! This is one of the advantages of buying digital versus disc: you don’t have to buy a new copy every time the technology improves.


So yes, video formats are changing. Just not in ways that will force you to buy your digital videos all over again in the new format. Someday a totally new digital video format that adds actual functionality, like 3D, will probably come along, and in that case consumers who want the new functionality will have to buy new hardware AND new digital video copies. Apart from that, I’m not worried about it.


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And now…

HBO’s True Detective Season 1 is a must-see show for fans of crime thrillers, Southern Gothic literature, or anyone who simply enjoys an incredibly well-written and acted drama in a creepy vein. If you love American Horror Story, you’ve GOT to see True Detective. This show has garnered 5 Emmy nominations, including nominations for both lead actors (Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey), nominations for writing, direction and a nomination for Best Drama Series. The nominations are well-deserved. This very dark crime drama is excellently written, excellently acted, and the period details are immaculate. Now add the Southern Gothic, literary underpinnings and what you’ve got is a sheet cake of cinematic win. I own this series (currently $23 in SD and $31 in HD for the entire first season) and feel I could watch it over and over and learn something new not only about the show, but myself, with every viewing.


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