Will Porn Decide the Latest Format War?

For far longer than I've been attending the January Consumer Electronics Show (CES), it has overlapped with the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo. Indeed, in the old days when the high-end portion of CES was housed in the Sahara hotel and casino, the two shows shared the same venue, leading to one of the more bizarre culture collisions known to modern man (one was certainly never in doubt as to who was there for which show).

This year, with the high-end's relocation to the Venetian Hotel/Sands Expo and Convention Center, the two shows once again were rubbing elbows. The proximity doesn't usually lead to news items that apply to both industries, but this year's AVN Expo served up a surprise breaking story: Porn has chosen a side in the Blu-ray/HD DVD format war and it isn't the format bruited about CES as the winner.

Over at CES, Sony was claiming victory, citing a ratio of Blu-ray to HD DVD sales of 3.5 to 1 and the support of major studios like 20th Century Fox, Paramount, MG, LionsGate, Warner Brothers, Buena Vista (Disney), and, of course, Sony.

The news was quite different at the AVN Expo, where Digital Playground, a studio that embraced Blu-ray at the 2006 Expo, claimed that, because Sony was preventing the release of XXX-rated discs, it had chosen to go with HD DVD. (Go here for Heise online's interview with DP's Joone, if you read German.)

According to an article in Ars Technica, Joone's contention is disputed by the Blu-ray Disc Association BDA). AT quotes Marty Gordon, vice chair of the BDA US Promotions Committee and vice president of the Philips Electronics Hollywood Office: "There is not a prohibition against adult content. The BDA welcomes the participation of all companies interested in using and supporting the format, particularly those from the content industry. We look forward to working with any content providers interested in providing their audience with [the] best possible high definition home entertainment experience."

Website TGDaily interviewed a spokesperson for Bangbros., who said, "Blu-ray has superior quality, yes, but HD DVD is easier to produce, cheaper to produce and there are more HD DVD players in homes than there are Blu-ray players, for example in the Xbox 360."

In other interviews, TGDaily was told by "a number of studios" that "the cost of going with Blu-ray cancels the technology as a possible HD solution for this industry. 'Only bigger studios can afford Blu-ray, and even then it's not economical.'"

Why does the adult entertainment industry matter to high-minded audiophiles such as ourselves? It isn't because we embrace porn—nor do we condemn it; we frankly don't much care what adults do with their spare time. It's because adult entertainment is an immense industry, one some analysts cite as being as big as Hollywood's box office receipts. (Eric Schlosser's 2003 book Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market estimated that pornography in the US, including videos, the Internet, live sex acts, and cable television, generates approximately $10 billion per year.)

Schlosser's book also maintained that it was the adult entertainment industry that led to the early success of VCRs, DVDs, and the Internet, as users discovered benefits of the media quite different from the ones initially touted by mainstream content providers. Videocassette, for example, allowed people to watch adult films at home rather than in seedy theaters such as the dump in which I once worked as a projectionist. Adult DVDs introduced cineastes to the virtues of chapter search, and a commonly cited (although impossible to verify) statistic from the computer industry is that the average user will only spend about four minutes trying to master a program, unless porn is the reward, in which case the time limit goes up exponentially.

Therefore, we see the question as being relatively simple. Who do we trust to predict the winner of the format war: Is it the company that blew its superior and first-to-market Betamax lead; the company that owned the portable player market at one point, only to cede the advantage to a computer company because it stuck to its proprietary digital format guns; the company that developed bu has apparently abandoned a technically superior successor to the compact disc—or the entrepreneurs that took an industry out of the back alleys and into the mainstream (and what's more mainstream than putting Jenna Jameson onto The New York Times's bestseller list)?

Blu-ray is far from dead, but perhaps it isn't as healthy as the reports from last week's CES might indicate.