Defining Visions: They've Done It To Us Again. . .

Here's a piece of really bad news for all 10 million of us who own digital television sets that are more than six months old. You won't be able to watch the new high-definition DVDs in high definition unless you buy a new TV. Whose to blame for this? Hollywood, of course.

Toshiba, the primary backer of HD DVD, one of the two competing high-definition formats, let it slip during road shows in Europe and the United States last month that the one and only high-definition output from its players will be HDMI, the digital input of choice on most new digital TVs. As recently as a year ago, DVI, not HDMI, was the input of choice, but even TVs with that older and still copy-protected input will not be able to watch HD DVDs in high definition.

And all of us with component or other analog inputs are, well, expletive deleted. Component outputs will be at 480i—exactly the resolution of present-generation DVDs.

The Blu-ray consortium, led by Sony, has made no announcements about its output options. But if Hollywood is insisting on this for one contender, no doubt it will do the same for the other. At the end of July, 20th Century Fox signed on with Blu-ray, infuriating the HD DVD crowd. Fox's explanation: Blu-ray offers more robust copy protection than HD DVD. You can figure out what that means.

Hollywood and its lobbying arm in Washington, the Motion Picture Association of America, has been broadcasting its desire to close what it calls the "analog hole." That is their term for unprotected component outputs. A couple of years ago, when the debate was over the connections between digital cable boxes and digital TVs, several members of Congress openly and loudly proclaimed that they would protect early adopters from early obsolescence, meaning that the boxes would have component-video outputs. But our vaunted legislators failed even at that.

Some digital cable boxes already have circuitry that can be used to "down-rez" some high-definition signals fed to the TV through its analog outputs. That's the pejorative phrase used to describe the act of taking a 1080i or 720p high-definition signal and stripping it down to 480i, or something close to it.

It is unknown how often this capability is used, if ever. But quietly, with no notice, this destructive circuitry has been incorporated in the boxes.

In my view, the high-definition DVD can be a transformational product. It can do for high-definition what the availability of movie rentals did for VCRs 20 years ago. On the one hand, you would think that Toshiba, Sony, Thomson, Panasonic and the other big players behind the two competing high-definition DVD formats would fight the HDMI requirement. After all, roughly 10 million immediate customers, most present owners of HDTVs, will be cut out of the market. That's bad news for sales of the new players.

But for most of them, there's good news that more than offsets this negative. More than 90 million American homes do not own an HDTV. Maybe this new product will drive many of them into the stores to buy one. And, perhaps, some present owners will decide to upgrade. So if any of the equipment makers are lamenting the disenfranchisement of their previous customers, I would look closely for crocodile tears.

While Toshiba let this HDMI/down-rez bombshell slip out quietly—reminding me of the habit here in Washington of releasing bad news on Friday night, when fewer people are watching—both camps were at the same time trumpeting fake polls that gave them a rhetorical edge in the competition between the two possible standards.

In mid-July, Blu-ray issued a press release touting a new public-opinion poll that purported to show that "consumers overwhelmingly prefer Blu-ray Disc as their format of choice." The release said consumers were given "a side-by-side comparison of the two formats" including a description of the relative advantages and disadvantages: technical capabilities, studio support, and the like. And wouldn't you know it? In a poll commissioned by Blu-ray, consumers favored Blu-ray.

Not to be outdone, the HD DVD camp commissioned it's own survey in late July. Lo and behold, in that survey, consumers preferred HD DVD. One officer in that camp said the fact that this format had "DVD" in its name influenced many respondents positively. Well, there's a ringing endorsement.

But the HD DVD folks did not make as big a deal of another finding in their poll. It took TWICE, the consumer-electronics industry publication, to make the point: Nearly half the people surveyed in the HD DVD poll said they would not purchase a player of any kind if a format war is still under way when products hit the shelves.

Through the spring and summer, the Blu-ray and HD DVD camps have been in fitful, on-again/off-again talks to join forces and offer just one format. Today, product development must be far enough along for a launch of new players late this year or early next. So in the unlikely event there is an agreement, it seems likely now that it will be after the first players from both camps have gone on sale.

A format war and incompatibility with 10 million existing digital television sets make a very significant product now look quite a bit less appealing.