Vol. 2, Issue #18 Sept. 28th - October 11th, 2007

Tiger Bear From Hell at NONzine.com

By: Wilhelm Murg

Format Wars
part 378

I just got a 42-inch television and I am enjoying it immensely, when I’m not tweaking the damn thing, which is most of the time; there’s nothing like trying to watch your favorite Bugs Bunny Cartoon while you adjust the brightness and sharpness over the image. With this monolith in the room I’m ready for the technology of next Tuesday, but of course it’s not here at the moment. There are many esoteric plugs-ins in the back that will never be used, and I’m still working on mastering the picture in the picture function.

I rather miss the good old days of dummy-proof components coming together in the same box that gave that high tech mystique to any moron with $150 in his pocket, and of course, the old cabinet stereos, which weighed a thousand pounds and took up more room than a coffin in the average home. After hours of trying to move one of those things up the stairs, all one had to do was position it and plug it in, and you were in rock’n’roll heaven...once you’ve showered after all the physical excursion.

Buying a television today has become a nightmare of comparing competing formats, the tube vs. LCD vs. Plasma, and it’s also become something of a social event, as you have to get your cable guy to come over to the house and change everything around to high definition.

This is not to mention the current format war going on between Blu-Ray and HD DVD, neither of which seems to be getting ahead of the other. My prediction has been that by the time the format war is settled, we’ll all simply download everything. It’s hard to image another physical medium given the direction that technology is moving. It’s particular upsetting because DVDs have finally gotten to the point where nearly everything is in print, and if we do change format, everything will have to be remastered and re-bought again. It’s taken this long to get Max Fleischer’s classic black & white “Popeye” cartoons remastered, the first box was just released this summer, I can’t imagine how long it will be before they are available on one of the new discs.

Format wars are nothing new. At the dawn of home entertainment in the late 19th century – keep in mind this is before most people had electricity – Thomas Edison’s cylinders were competing with flat records as the dominate medium in audio reproduction. Edison refused to manufacture records for over a decade, until the writing was on the wall.

Edison got out of the music business just in time for the speed war of the early records. While most records were compatible, technology-wise, the correct playback speed for records from different companies ranged from 72 to 96 RPM, thus you had to buy records from the company that sold you the phonograph, otherwise the pitch would be higher or lower than it should be. By the time the standard became 78 RPM, the format died to make way for the 33 & 1/3rd RPM LP and the 45-RPM single. Luckily both formats found their markets and both survived...until CDs took over.

In the 1960s the bloodiest format war started with in the portable tape market. The 8 track tape was essentially a giant mobius strip with four stereo tracks on it, so in it’s wake other manufacturers made four track tapes, with two stereo tracks, and even two track tapes, with two mono tracks. While the 8 track seemed to be a dominant format, you couldn’t rewind, music was interrupted when the tracks change, and it sounded like crap, so the lowly cassette won the war, a medium originally marketed for secretaries to use for dictation. At the same time there were competing quadraphonic sound systems, none of which did all that well and disappeared long before surround sound was even conceived.

The 1980s was the high water mark for competing formats; VHS vs. Betamax, CED video discs, which played with a stylus like a record, vs. laserdiscs, Video8 vs. VHS-C for camcorders, minidisks vs. DAT, PC vs. Mac, you get the idea.

There used to be two markets to watch if you wanted to see which format would win. Classical music fans usually had a major vote in audio formats, simply because classical music ranges from the lowest lows to the highest highs. Sadly, those people are slowly disappearing and the rock fans are getting in the majority vote, which is fine, except that while one can judge how a violin is supposed to sound, most rock music is so “produced” with effects, not only on the electronic instruments, but also as a production, that the true sound of an instrument is somewhat elusive.

For video, you can always count on the porn fans to have the biggest vote, as they buy a lot of home video. Sony has tried to keep Blu-Ray out of the porn business, which could be to their determent – but at the same time, how much definition do you need to watch some dude’s scrotum bounce during the act of love.

I’m going to wait out this long war and keep with my low definition DVD player; it might be a little pixilated, but I’m not just stuck with the latest Hollywood titles for my selection.

I told my record dealer that his will be my last record store. Once it shuts down I’ll be utilizing the web, as EVERYTHING is available (both as physical media and as downloads). Times are a changin’. Of course, but then this TV will look as old as something sporting rabbit ears.

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