Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Longest W-Day

With the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) just wrapping up in Las Vegas this past week, it brings up that sacred January anniversary tied to the show every year, that all Blu-ray disk home-theater fans of the right generation hold dear--The one that summarized all the industry's suffering and troubles under the '06-'08 "Format War II" of Blu-ray vs. HDDVD:
Last Wednesday, January 4, we pause for the observance of the day that united all us home-theater disk fans in an appreciation of how the fans, not the companies, drive the market in deciding the best format...A date which became known in fame and infamy as "W-Day".

To save space, a brief historical rundown on the technical "Red vs. Blue" specs and backstory of the great '06-'08 war:
RoughlyDrafted, "Origins of the Blu-ray vs. HDDVD War", 8/29/07
Hi-Def was already becoming the "new frontier" of home theater in theoretical vaporware at industry shows long before the FCC's new standard for digital HDTV sets made it a necessity.  Even as far back as '04, when companies were only presenting their prototypes for new high-definition compression or extended-capability disks, the battle lines were already being drawn between hardware companies and studios for loyalty, in the battle for the successor to DVD's crown.
Blu-ray was Sony's hardware baby, so Sony naturally committed their studio titles, along with their recently acquired MGM titles.  Universal was tied to Dreamworks, Dreamworks was tied to Microsoft in deals for animation software, and both had to be solidly behind HD, if they knew what MS thought was good for them--While Toshiba's Japanese execs addressed the issues with Japanese reserve, it was Universal Marketing VP Ken Graffeo who soon became Blu-ray's most hated rah-rah cheerleader for HDDVD.  Fox cited software-security concerns as reasons not to support HDDVD, but took its time before going Blu.  Disney, having just merged with Pixar and gotten Steve Jobs as a board member into the bargain, now had a very, very vested interest in not seeing Microsoft and VC-1 win the home theater battle, and in seeing Blu-ray win to keep hi-def movie coding out of Bill Gates' hands.  

And that left Warner and Paramount as the swing votes.  The uncommitted studios were caught in No Man's Land between the battle, with no clear winner to support, neither side gaining decisive ground, and forced to release two sets of titles, one for each format--
Warner released titles in both formats, but while Sony was wooing the action and comedy demographic to Blu-ray, Warner believed HDDVD would ultimately become the "film fan's" discerning format for watching Casablanca and The Searchers.   Paramount released both formats, but infamously took a "contribution" from Toshiba to move their support to HDDVD, in return for needed funds for their Star Trek TV restoration--A move that had the industry crying "Traitors!", and blackened HDDVD's image overnight as the product of a weasel company that would pull any stunt to win the War.

The war was most definitely NOT being won by the marketplace:  Mainstream buyers were apathetic about dueling near-identical formats at high prestige price points, and--with frequent complaints about the Beta-vs.-VHS battle years before--put off their buying either until a winner pulled ahead, or until the price came down on one or the other.  Toshiba, facing dropping sales for their HDDVD hardware, was quick to exploit this angle, finally dropped the price on their players to $199 in time for Christmas, back when Sony was still selling their players and compatible Playstation consoles were going for $450 and up, and cleaned up with a new growing HDDVD customer base of People Who Couldn't Care Less, So Long As It Was Cheap.  
With Paramount, Universal and the promise of Warner's big (and still uncommitted) mega-franchises on their side, HDDVD tried to sell its few "killer apps" against Blu--New Toshiba player buyers would not only get a hi-def future, but a Star Trek Phaser remote-control as well!  But what wasn't selling the format with the public was that Sony and Microsoft had taken the battle to the game-console market, and the tone of the battle became increasingly gamer-adolescent with gamer fans declaring their diehard support on home-theater discussions--When the loudest praise of HDDVD was coming from X-Box Doods raving loyalty over Peter Jackson's "King Kong", or the two formats tried dueling Will Ferrell comedies (with Sony offering "Talladega Nights" with new PS3's, and Paramount promising "Blades of Glory" on HDDVD), it didn't do much for the Format War's image among adult mainstream buyers.  And even then, the X-Box Doods' chief complaint was that their console required a separately-priced module to play the format...If only the X-Box came with the format installed, they dreamed, everyone would finally see the light, but rumors of a new console never came true.

From late '06 to early '07, the chief goal for a weary industry was not to find the decisive "format killer" for the other, but some universal dual-format player or disk to say "A plague on both your houses" and let buyers buy whatever danged movies they wanted to.  
Warner thought they had the angle on this--While hardware company LG promoted their new dual-format "Multiplayer", Warner pursued R&D on the idea of a "Total Hi-Def hybrid disk", with dual layers of HDDVD and Blu-ray.  Unfortunately, this turned out to be an impossible idea (as HDDVD was a matter of coding, but Blu had finer-etched disk grooves), and long searches for such a disk never panned out.  But until they got one--and could corner the market with their own profitable patent on the Peace Treaty that would end the war--Toshiba's increasing defections and losses in the industry was still a necessary evil to hold onto.

The Hybrid disk never came, and no Hybrid disk meant that HDDVD had literally outlived its usefulness to Warner:  The Las Vegas CES shows for the past '06 and '07 had become highly anticipated battlegrounds for who would drop the Big Bombshell news about one format or the other throwing in the towel.  Warner knew if they dropped their big news at the presentation on Jan. 8, '08, the shock headlines would unfairly overshadow all the other technical presentations at the show, so they decided to do the more reasonable thing--On Jan. 4, 2008, four days before the CES, the studio announced it was abandoning its HDDVD support and going Blu-ray.
Toshiba, who had been hoping that Batman and Lord of the Rings would sell HDDVD, was understandably a bit upset--HDDVD supporters' first suspicious reaction was that, since everyone knew studios changing loyalties always happened because of bribes (and how did we get that idea?), Warner must have clearly taken Paramount-like blood-money from those Sony weasels, but given HDDVD's steady decline by the end of '07, it was a weak alibi at best, and looked even more like the rages of a sore loser.
Analysts went into CES '08 knowing for established fact that HDDVD was a dead format walking, and for Media VP Jodi Sally, that unplanned '08 Toshiba presentation was not a happy one, but certainly a brave and stubborn one:

For Toshiba, Warner's defection was more than just seeing the shift in the balance of studio content, it was being jilted at the altar:  The company's last sole defense against an industry increasingly demanding they get off the stage was telling the industry that they were still in the game for so long as Warner was their faithful, powerful friend to the end.  
And when Warner dropped Toshiba for their own convenience--raising some real speculation of just how "loyal" they had been all along--it delivered the very clear, unmistakable message of "This IS the end."  By the end of the day, the national press was actively speculating on a date for HDDVD's demise, and on February 28, Toshiba finally announced they were folding the format, outside of a few conciliatory cleanups like refunds and hardware conversion.  
The War was over, and the obvious Times Square VE-Day nurse-smooch metaphors were all over most home theater news sites.

Which leads us to one of the other funniest, truest, and most (ahem) infamously best-known contributions that W-Day 2008 gave to our culture:
The VE-Day jokes also extended to smartypants movie fans who had just seen Oliver Hirschbiegel's Oscar-nominated 2004 WWII German drama Downfall.
In the climax, Hitler's staff of German army officers in the central Berlin HQ bunker are not only dealing with the advancing Russian front, but with fears that their militarily inexperienced leader is sinking into further unstable bipolar fantasies of "glorious victories" and paranoid "traitor" suspicions--Cut off from the realities of the battle, he reassures his generals that his one strategically-placed general will singlehandedly hold off the Russian advance, and when told that the general was unable to carry it out, and that there is now nothing to stop Russia from taking Berlin within days, and the entire War with it, the news is...not taken very well:

The joke that hit the YouTube home-theater fanbase (including the nastier gamer Playstation vs. X-Box factions) after the Warner news was a movie-referencing joke for movie-quoting fans.  We were imagining a long-hated, reality-retreated, Napoleonic-complexed company that had lost their last faithful imaginary "general" to hold off an advancing enemy, and were now flailing about to look for scapegoats to keep them from admitting the inevitable.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, in case you might've ever wondered where they came from:  The very, very FIRST Angry Hitler YouTube Video ever created, within hours after the headlines first hit.
Hitler Reacts to HDDVD.  It was W-Day that first created them, because W-Day was what it was first about...Nowwww d'you get it?
(Clip on separate link, as some dialogue NSFW--As, we suspect, Toshiba's wasn't either when they got their news.)

Y'see, we got the joke.  Mostly because we'd just rented the movie on disk and knew the scene, but mostly because we HAD watched the bad news about Gen. Steiner, that we could relish Toshiba's imaginary reaction that their "glorious conquest" had just hit hard reality...We knew what the scene was really saying, and we knew what the clip was really, really saying.  Every line was truth about Toshiba's delusions that Paramount titles and Will Ferrell comedies alone would hold off a growing studio majority, or that no one was really buying the standalone players with any degree of technical loyalty, and after we poor fans had held back with saying so for so long with no one to believe us, hearing them out loud was victoriously nasty enough to savor.
Kids nowadays don't get the joke.  They might remember a format war, but they don't remember why Hitler was shouting about it. (The second video, an intentional parody of the parody a few months later, ingeniously had Hillary Clinton, another reality-busted Napoleon, ranting about losing her '08 superdelegates to Obama, and was just as funny and true-to-life.)  They seem to be under the adolescent idea is that the joke is that a shock-value symbol is turning red-faced and cursing, huh-huh, huh-huh, and that that itself is comedy enough.  A quick YouTube search will turn up plagues and plagues of Angry Hitlers shouting about everything from a late pizza, to the latest Halo incarnation, to the last episode of Westworld.  
Even German actor Bruno Ganz has commented on the plague of seeing "himself" rant about so many fanboy issues, and takes it in stride, but is disappointed they don't appreciate the tragically sympathetic performance he put into the original context.

But if there must be only one AHYTV, there is one rule, and that's that Comedy is Specific.  There should be a Joke to Get, and, as Mystery Science Theater 3000 famously observed, The Right People To Get It.
And that's why we old FWII vets raise a glass every January 4, and put a Blu disk in our players.  (Well, mine's a Playstation 3, because they were the only ones back then that worked.  And yes, the X-Box kids annoyed us.)

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