Digital Content Navigates New World Of Devices

Feb 06, 2010 (02:02 AM EST)

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Not long ago a friend and I were marveling at the way everything from movie watching to music browsing had been completely torn down and revamped in the past decade. "We're living in a science fiction novel," he remarked. My response: "Yes, I just hope it's not 1984."

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The last 10 years have seen more and deeper changes in the way entertainment is consumed than almost all of the 60 years before it. Most of those changes have been instigated by or made easier through technology -- specifically, the Internet -- but they are also reflections of changing attitudes about entertainment. Because there's so much to consume and in so many different forms, the fight to find audiences has intensified. At the same time, it's also shown that content providers are still hesitant about allowing the digital world to completely dictate availability.

In this piece I'll survey three of the major areas where entertainment has gone digital, and examine how licensing and intellectual property concerns have had at least as much of an impact as technology.

Video And Blu-Ray Disc

Unlike audio, which hit the peak of its fidelity on the consumer side decades ago, the jump in quality provided by HD and Blu-ray is dramatic. Quality by itself may not spur casual watchers to convert, but enough momentum is building -- and equipment prices are falling fast enough -- that high-definition displays and media should be the default within a couple of years.

Blu-ray was introduced to provide consumers with a physical carrier for high-def content. They were already getting HD through their cable and satellite feeds, but Blu-ray gave them a way to enjoy such content without a network connection -- and apart from the whims of the on-demand video market, where titles could vanish at any time. Blu-ray players themselves are also eclipsing territory normally staked out by dedicated set-top boxes that deliver on-demand content -- e.g., Netflix, now available through a number of net-connected Blu-ray disc players.

The other big reason Blu-ray was introduced was to offset the slump in DVD sales, proof that said market has become saturated by both rental and video-on-demand suppliers. So far the offset strategy seems to have worked. According to Home Media Magazine, packaged media revenue for video dropped only 1.6% through most of 2009, primarily due to BD sales, which rose 137% over the course of the year, helping offset DVD's 7.54% decline.

Blu-ray's limits as a medium are at least partly rooted in the content available. Many TV shows not shot on film, for instance, will never appear in a HD incarnation; there would be no point. Anything film-sourced is a different story, since the upper bounds of film's resolution are anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 lines. It still takes a certain amount of work to create proper HD masters, though, and many studios' film libraries have HD masters that were only prepared as precursors to authoring the DVD edition of a film.

Fortunately, some companies have been far more forward-thinking in this respect and made the extra effort to convert their backend production flow to consumer-ready HD before Blu-ray (or HD-DVD) was a reality. Warner Brothers' home-video division and the boutique classic-movies video label Criterion, a recent Blu-ray convert, have both excelled in this respect.

Another major advance in video has been 3-D -- a much more practical and advanced version of 3-D than the old anaglyph (red/blue) system. Blu-ray's consortiums recently agreed on a standard for 3-D content, where the single biggest factor is the display. What's less clear is whether 3-D will be a major selling point for BD as opposed to gaming, where 3-D has genuine application apart from simply being a presentation gimmick.

Digital Music: Led By Technology

"Music" and "digital entertainment" have been virtual synonyms for the whole of the last decade. The digital music player -- and with it, the PC -- has become the nexus of most people's music consumption. Choices abound: Apple's iPod, Microsoft's Zune, the digital-era Sony Walkman, or most recent cell phones all work as music players.

The MP3 format might have been of dodgy quality at first -- like the CD before it -- but before long high-bitrate rips, superior encoding software, and better playback equipment made all but academic the differences between a lossy compressed file and the lossless original.

Once MP3 became the de facto format for digital music, it became clear a market -- legitimate or not -- existed for music with little or no physical carrier. In other words, CDs and record stores in general (with some high-end exceptions) are on the way out; downloads in various forms are here to stay.

Today the average user can obtain the vast majority of the music they want from a panoply of legit sources. iTunes remains the de facto default, but in part only because it's added TV and movies as download options. eMusic and have both ascended in popularity, each offering high-quality unprotected files in the time-tested MP3 format. The former uses a credit-based pricing program that best serves music lovers looking to download in bulk; the latter offers a range of artists unsurpassed by anyone but Apple, and the reputation to back it up.

Most of what's been used to explain the digital music explosion has been technological. True, the growth of broadband and cheap storage helped. But a couple of social factors have also been crucial. One, people have demonstrated they are more than willing to sacrifice a little audio quality for the sake of greater convenience. In fact, they had already been doing that for some time, when they copied their CDs to analog cassette tapes for use in the car or their Walkman. (Eventually, the rise of cheap CD player hardware -- as well as CD players that also played back CD-ROM compilations of MP3s -- made that step obsolete.)

The audiophiles were -- and still are -- grumpy about this. For them, the CD was bad enough; to have that eclipsed by the lossy MP3 is even more of a blow. But many of them continue to be served by the boutique end of the music industry. Vinyl continues to boom in popularity, even if its superiority to digital formats is largely a matter of taste (and somewhat ironic, given that many current vinyl albums are mastered from all-digital sources).

The second psychological factor has been the changing landscape of music as a cultural force. Music has become far more heavily divided along preferential lines, with the listener-created playlist taking precedence over the artist-created album. Few artists find an audience across the board anymore, and music has had to compete all the harder against other forms of entertainment -- e.g., video games -- for peoples' attention. It seems inevitable that a world with such a mix-and-match attention span would gravitate towards a sales model which rewards picking and choosing.

The biggest obstacle towards the continued uptake of digital music is licensing, not technology. On eMusic and Amazon, for instance, the pricing and availability for tracks varies widely. Some artists -- or some albums for some artists -- cannot be digitally distributed in some territories at all. It's arbitrary and frustrating, and creates an incentive to engineer illegal end-runs around such things... which in turn defeats the purpose of offering legitimate digital downloads in the first place.

Apart from this, the music industry is still experimenting intermittently with ways to push people back to the old-school sales models: copy protection of one kind or another, value-added physical packaging (e.g., coupon codes in CDs for unlocking bonus content) -- in short, most everything except biting down all the way on the digital bullet.

E-Books: A Latecomer To The Party

The digital revolution has most benefited media that already lent themselves to being conveniently converted to a digital format. Books have been a relative latecomer, not because texts are difficult to digitize but because they've been inconvenient to consume in a way that parallels the reading of a paper book.

Much of that has changed in the last couple of years. Not just because of the introduction of a whole slew of electronic reading devices (led by Amazon's Kindle -- which may be eclipsed by Apple's introduction of the iPad), but licensing and delivery mechanisms to go with them (again, Amazon's Kindle). It's still clear that electronics cannot replace paper books across the board, but can serve as strategic replacements for them in certain ways.

You could fill a whole article with the ways paper books and e-readers diverge, each doing things the other can't. E-readers are fragile: drop a paper book in water and you're not out anywhere near the amount of money. But they make up for it in versatility and space savings, and that's what draws in most of the people who are fond of them. They are making it that much more appealing to be a voracious reader again.

That said, it's not clear e-books can ever replace books where visualization and presentation are part of the package. Art and photography books, technical texts, and graphic novels -- the latter of which are taking up a growing slice of book sales, enough to warrant their own New York Times bestseller list -- all rely on print quality as an inseparable part of the reading experience.

This doesn't just include the resolution of the print, but things like spot colors, printing effects (e.g., gatefold inserts), and all of the other things that can only be done with a manufactured object. No device out there can yet reproduce those kinds of details on a screen -- certainly not a screen that works as a direct substitute for a printed page.

As with music, one of the biggest obstacles isn't the technology; it's the licensing of the content. The most hesitancy has been shown not by the authors, who are generally amenable to having their work distributed in a novel way. Rather, it's the publishers, who worry that e-books threaten to eat into the profits generated by their dead-tree counterparts, and are mulling strategies such as delaying sales of an e-book title until the paper edition has had some time to sell through.

The movie industry's been considering something similar -- disallowing rentals or streaming copies of a given movie until retail copies have had a chance to get out into the market. Such strategies are a retreat from the concept of the universal day-and-date debut, which was posited as a way to stave off piracy by allowing as many people as possible to get their hands on something in as many ways as possible.

Google's presence here can't be ignored, either. Their idea was to create a home for orphaned, out-of-print, and public domain works through Google Books, but the plan attracted at least as much ire as it did admiration. A big part of that was the methodology, where Google made the system opt-out rather than opt-in and in essence forced people to prove they were still the rightful owners of various texts.

Again, the problem wasn't that creators didn't want that much more attention or access to their works -- it was Google's by-fiat approach to the whole thing. The end result has been a massive amount of legal fallout; most recently and strikingly, Google Books was declared illegal in France.

Looking Ahead

When it comes to digital media, rights and permissions are the new frontier, not technology. The latter has always outstripped the former in terms of its ability to keep pace with change, to drive change, and to force significant reassessments of how media is consumed and created.

The content industries are now feeling more pressure than ever to evolve or perish. The music industry has only grudgingly, and years too late, begun to embrace digital media -- and only because entrepreneurs from outside the music industry (Apple,, etc.) showed them it was better to sell something and lose a little than to sell nothing and lose everything.

The movie and TV moguls chose a different strategy. With the arrival of HD, they built end-to-end content protection into the delivery mechanisms. They are not impossible to circumvent, but tough enough to defeat casual copying of the "VCR-to-VCR" variety. But the best copy-protection mechanism of them all is still affordable, realistic pricing for the media in question.

Thankfully, Blu-ray titles (and players) have been slowly reaching parity with their DVD counterparts. In 2009 the Criterion Collection released DVD and BD versions of the same films at the same price point; in 2010 many companies plan to package both editions of a given film together, or also offer them at competitive prices. This has helped, and so Blu-ray is fast on track to pick up where DVD left off -- and offer that much more at what amounts to a similar pricing structure.

What has become more urgent than ever is the need to seek out and provide new content. There's less of a future than ever in reselling people the same media over and over, and this may well be the last generation -- both in terms of technology and people -- where such a ploy is possible. The media market's become too compartmentalized, too siloed, too easily subdivided to try and turn the clock back. Neither the technology nor today's audiences will allow it.

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