Porn industry may be decider in Blu-ray, HD-DVD battle

Just as in the 1980s, when the Betamax and VHS video formats were battling it out for supremacy, the pornography industry will likely play a big role in determining which of the two blue-laser DVD formats -- Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD -- will be the winner in the battle to replace DVDs for high-definition content.

Ron Wagner, director of IT operations at E! Entertainment Television in Los Angeles, said his company has already chosen the Blu-ray Disc format, in large part because of talk in the porn industry favoring it over rival HD-DVD.

Wagner said that while attending last year's National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) annual conference in Las Vegas, more than one panel discussed "several major players in the porn industry going the Blu-ray route." He said the Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD rivalry was also the buzz around NAB 2006 last month.

"If you look at the VHS vs. Beta standards, you see the much higher-quality standard dying because of [the porn industry's support of VHS]," he said. "The mass volume of tapes in the porn market at the time went out on VHS."

E! Entertainment is using Blu-Ray discs primarily for Sony's XDCam applications for acquisition of television programming materials. The television network, which has more than 85 million subscribers to its celebrity gossip and entertainment news, said it is not considering optical formats for long-term data archiving, but will stick with magnetic tape for now.

The pornography industry, which generates an estimated US$57 billion in annual revenue worldwide, has always been a fast leader when it comes to the use of new technology, according to analysts.

Porn studio Digital Playground, which claims to have produced the largest number of high definition movies in the industry over the past three years, said it is choosing Blu-ray Disc for all of its "interactive" films because of its greater capacity. It also selected Blue-ray because Sony chose the format for its PlayStation 3 (PS3) box, due out in November.

The co-founder of Los Angeles-based Digital Playground, who goes by the one-word name "Joone," said the fact that Sony chose Blu-ray guarantees his studio an instant home audience.

"PlayStation 3 is going to be the Trojan horse that will get a lot of numbers into the home theater systems -- the living rooms," said Joone, who is also a movie director. "Technology-wise we've chosen Blu-ray, which doesn't mean we won't support both formats ... but as far as having really cool technology and a lot of storage for future proof, Blu-ray is a good format."

Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD are the new optical-disc formats that are positioned as replacements for DVDs with high-definition content.

Blu-ray is not only backed by entertainment giant Sony, but Panasonic, LG Electronics, Philips Electronics and movie studios Disney and Fox. Blu-ray offers storage up to 50GB capacity, or up to nine hours of high-definition content. In contrast, HD-DVD has 30GB capacity and is supported by companies like Toshiba, NEC and Warner Home Video.

Paul O'Donovan, an analyst with Gartner, said pornography's support of either DVD format will be a "strong factor" to the uptake of the technology by the general marketplace, but even more critical is Sony's adoption of the technology.

O'Donovan said even though initially the Blu-ray format will be more expensive and will come after that of HD-DVD, the sheer support it is receiving from the entertainment industry, including pornography studios, will catapult it to a victory within a range of 18 months to five years.

Steve Hirsch, head of the adult film studio Vivid Entertainment, said he's currently using the HD-DVD format because it was the first to come out, but his studio will begin burning to the Blu-ray format as soon as it's available.

"The adult industry has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to technology. We don't have any theatrical distribution issues nor do we have big box retailers, like Wal-Mart and Blockbuster, to cater to. We're forced to find distribution wherever we can," Hirsch said.

Hirsch, who founded Vivid Entertainment in 1984, said the porn industry -- just as in the 1980s -- will have a big influence on the outcome of the latest high-definition video format wars. In the 1980s, Hirsch said VHS tapes started selling for $50 a piece and Betamax went for $55. "Therefore we pushed VHS harder, and in that sense we did have something to do with VHS winning out," said Hirsch, whose studio pulls in an estimated $100 million in revenue a year.

"It was the adult industry who jumped right in and were putting movies on both VHS and Beta. We pushed the actual technology more than anyone else," he said. "The adult industry has always been ahead when comes to technology."

But not everyone believes the format war will be determined by the porn industry. Steve Duplessie, founder of research firm Enterprise Strategy Group, in Milford, Mass., and a Computerworld columnist, said the porn industry's influence over the fate of VHS and the upcoming high-def DVD formats is overstated. Duplessie said VHS ultimately won over Betamax because Betamax was a proprietary format owned by Sony, while VHS was more open.

"I love the whole pornography concept simply because porn is still the number one money-making use of the Internet. But I don't believe the porn industry will drive the format. Like any other industry, it will supply what the consumer wants," he said.