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FIRST-PERSON: King VCR is dying, long live King DVD

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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (BP)–The VCR, the entertainment ruler of American households for 20 years, is now nearing the end of its long reign. Columbia Tri-Star Home Entertainment announced the other day it is beginning to phase out certain VHS catalog titles once they have been released on DVD. Other studios are taking Columbia’s lead. And Blockbuster Entertainment threatens to eventually eliminate video rentals, insisting that customer demands are leaning to the new and improved format. So what does the future hold for those with video libraries and VCRs in every room?

While it will be several years yet before VHS movies disappear from the face of the earth, the videotape is certain to go the way of the music world’s 8-track audiotape, the pioneering Beta video and the record-sized movie laser disc. “Videotape is now outmoded, an inferior way to watch a movie,” says one DVD enthusiast.

According to the DVD Entertainment Group, a nonprofit group funded by the DVD industry, the marketplace is undergoing a massive switchover to DVD. The digital format vaulted to 57 percent of home video consumer spending in 2002.

“It’s estimated that anywhere from 40 to 50 million households have DVD players, and that’s increasing on a monthly basis,” says Jeff Fink, president of sales and marketing for Artisan Home Entertainment.

As with many breakthroughs in entertainment technology, skeptics thought DVDs would be a flash in the pan. Others feared that obtaining the rights to older movies for switchover would be a major problem. Plus, it takes time to properly restore a classic film for DVD, especially when the master print has deteriorated. But each of these setbacks has been or is being rectified.

The DVDs technical superiority cannot be denied. But the videotape will not go silently into that good night. Like many traditionalists who maintain that LPs (that’s long-playing vinyl records for those of you under 30), have a better sound, there are videophiles who staunchly cling to those familiar rectangle video cartridges.

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“I already own Casablanca on video. Why should I go to the expense of purchasing it on DVD after I’ve already viewed it a jillion times?” inquires a video devotee.

“I’m sure the quality is better,” another video collector reflects, “but how do I justify buying a film again after I’ve seen it so many times?”

But this attitude may simply reflect a reluctance to change. “They’re used to videos. And they fear that the cost will be prohibitive, or that they won’t find their old favorites on DVD,” an employee at Blockbuster says, before declaring, “The DVD has a better look, better sound, more room to hold related material and, now, a movie on DVD is nearly as affordable as the videotape version.”

So what is the main hesitance for switching from VHS to DVD? “It is thought that the purchase price of a DVD machine is more than the VCR,” says Charlie Samson, a salesman at Circuit City. “That was once true, but no longer.” He points to one well-known brand of DVD and states, “I bought this model three years ago and paid $500 for it. Now, it’s less than a $100.” Examining the many brands of VCRs and DVD players, Samson shows the prices of both VCRs and DVD players to be comparative, and in several cases, the DVD machines are less expensive.

“What’s more,” Samson added, “all DVD machines generally have the same quality, resulting in high-quality images and sound.”

But will your favorite films be transferred to DVD? And just as importantly, will they be affordable?

Kavita Smith, a publicist at Sony Entertainment, admits that transferring the thousands of movies in the Columbia/TriStar film vaults will be an ongoing process, but is confident it inevitably will be completed. “Yes, the younger generation may prefer the newer releases, but there will always be a demand for the classics. And there are aficionados who will seek to salvage even bad old films, because they are a part of the art form. It is a slow process, but one that will be maintained.”

As for the cost, DVDs still average $2-3 more than a video version of a new release. But even that is changing. Bargain hunters are finding great deals on new DVD releases, with many less expensive than their video counterparts.

So what’s the difference between these two formats? Well, the buyer gets more with a DVD, whether he wants it or not.

VHS is an analog videotape format developed by a consortium of Japanese electronics manufactures in the early 1980s. To make it affordable to the consumer, the standards for NTSC broadcast quality video were greatly compromised. The luminance bandwidth was cut in half so detail resolution is a mere 220 lines. Broadcast quality recorders at the time could record up to 450 lines of resolution (over-the-air broadcast delivery gets only around 330 lines of resolution to the home). To fit the color information on the VHS tape, it cut down to a mere 20 percent of the original detail, so there are approximately only 40 lines of color information per horizontal line.

On the other hand, DVD — Digital Versatile Disc, better known as Digital Video Disc — has a sharper image, with a resolution roughly double that of a VHS tape. The DVD has more than 480 lines of luminance detail and more than 220 lines of color information per line. This is even better than the record-sized LD (laser disc).

DVDs also reproduce CD-quality sound. Like a music CD, the sound is stored in a digital format and can have up to eight tracks, usually in Dolby or a DTS format. Where a VCR has a limited sound capability, DVD players offer 5.1 channels of surround sound.

DVDs can store up to 17 Gbytes (for us laymen, that’s a whole lot of recording space). A DVD can hold up to eight hours of crystal-clear pictures and sounds. The discs are capable of containing both standard and wide-screen versions of the same movie, along with theater-quality sound. Many foreign movies on DVD offer alternative voice tracks, with or without subtitles. They’re easier to store and, best yet, there’s no rewinding.

There are many other extras not available on a VHS tape, including enough room to store background information about, for example, “the making of” documentaries. The digital format also allows the data to be organized in chapters, easily accessible via the remote control, for those who like to skip through portions of a film or instantly find favorite scenes. On some discs a scene can be viewed from different camera angles (a popular feature for sports enthusiasts).

What’s more, unlike videotape, the surface of a DVD is never touched by a mechanical part. Only a beam of laser light touches the disc. Therefore, after hundreds of playings, there are no tracking marks or wear on the disc. Unlike the videotape, there is no worry that something will get crunched up in the machine. If the owner doesn’t scratch or abuse the disc surface, it will last a lifetime.

But not all is perfect about this new format. For one thing, pre-recorded DVDs have a blocking system that prevents copying. Unless you purchase a very expensive unit designed to get around the blocking system, you will not be able to copy from one DVD to another. This is done to protect the distributor’s rights. And while you can purchase blank DVDs to record TV programs, a pricey DVD player/recorder is required.

According to industry analysts, the time is not far off when all movies will be on DVD. The question is, how long will the DVD maintain its sovereignty over the home movie medium? For although DVD is king for a day, it is technology that rules. When the Digital Video Disc becomes embedded in every home, can the consumer expect another format to dethrone the king? The consensus of most insiders is a resounding “Yes.” With a smile, they each note that whatever new process comes along, it will surely promise a better picture, better sound and even more bells and whistles.
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Philip Boatwright reviews films from a Christian perspective. For more information about his service, go to www.movierepo