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Battle of the formats: Winners are elusive

In the battle of consumer video-recorder formats in the early 1980s, I chose the VHS format from JVC over the Beta format from Sony Corp. for my home use.

The market was flooded with inexpensive VHS machines, and the recording time of VHS tapes at that time was longer than Beta. Undoubtedly with the realization that my choice was a death knell for the Beta format, it eventually would be withdrawn from the consumer market.

Though I was right on that one, I learned in subsequent years working in television that high-quality Sony Betacam tape became the industry standard for serious professional video production.

Moving ahead to the mid-1980s, I found myself doing some TV interviews in record stores, asking consumers if they intended to abandon 12-inch vinyl records in favor of the new compact disc format.

Absolutely not, consumers told me. They preferred large record covers and liner notes, they liked the sound and feel of vinyl, and they had no intention of getting rid of existing record players. I dutifully reported their comments.

Yet in 1988, CD sales would go on to surpass vinyl-record sales. OK, so I missed that one.

The word "format" has been the bane of consumers for many years. It is a battlefield because the company with a winning format makes the big money. Incompatible formats are weapons in this high-stakes game.

The high-definition video player has prompted the latest conflagration. With existing DVD home libraries of consumers well-stocked, and sales slowing, movie and electronics industries are pushing for a new DVD format with high definition to distinguish it.

Sony has its Blu-ray format, while Toshiba Corp. has its HD DVD format. They're incompatible, so discs won't play on each other's players. Film studios are lining up behind the format of their choice. Incentives are being passed around to encourage them.

This has left consumers scratching their heads. Most of the time they simply have decided their existing non-high-definition players will do just fine until a new format wins out.

Time Warner's Warner Brothers Entertainment recently said it will release its high-definition films exclusively in Blu-ray format. The Walt Disney, Twentieth Century Fox and Sony studios already are issuing in Blu-ray, but Universal and Paramount are in the HD DVD fold.

The balance now seems tipping toward Blu-ray, though I don't declare winners in such things since my vinyl-record debacle.

Andrew Leckey is a Tribune Media Services columnist.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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