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HD media future may be Blu, but it's not rosy

Blu-ray demand low despite format war win

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Analysis Sales of Blu-ray Disc players have not benefitted from the end of the format war, it seems. This week US retail market watcher NPD said player sales grew just two per cent in the month after Toshiba tossed in the towel.

The Japanese giant's decision to abandon HD DVD came on 19 February. That month, NPD said, Blu-ray Disc player sales fell 40 per cent when compared to January's total. In March, sales rose, but only by that two per cent figure.

It's important to note that these are standalone player sales - the figures don't include PlayStation 3 sales. Associated Press notes that Sony sold 257,120 PS3s in the US in March. While that's double the number sold in March 2007, it's not clear to what extent these consoles are being used as BD players, whether occasionally or consistently.

According to US Home Media Magazine, which cited Nielsen VideoScan sales figures, Blu-ray Disc disc sale volumes were up 351 per cent during Q1 when compared to Q1 2007's total. That sounds good, but let's look at the numbers more closely.

In the US, disc shipments were up 2.6 per cent year on year, rising from around 226m units in Q1 2008 to 232m in Q1 2008, HMM said. This was despite a 1.2 per cent drop in DVD shipments over the same timeframe. So Blu-ray and HD DVD shipments not only increase year on year, they more that compensated for falling DVD demand.

If all the 226m units sold in Q1 2007 were DVDs, that means some 223m DVDs shipped in Q1 2008. Take that from 232m and you have Q1 2008 unit shipments of HD media reaching a shade under 9m units.

That's still only four per cent of the total, no matter how much bigger the figure is than Q1 2007's sales. We'd estimate that around 75 per cent of those HD disc sales were Blu-ray, given historical sales patterns, which is roughly 6.8m units.

That's over three months. It's wrong to say that means 2.3m BDs were sold during each month of the quarter, but we'll take that as a worst-case scenario. That means, on average, everyone who bought a PS3 in March also bought nine BDs. Which doesn't sound bad - until you factor in all the other owners of BD-capable kit.

At the end of 2007, it's estimated there were 3.5m devices capable of BD playback in US homes, according to Bernstein Research analyst Michael Nathanson. If no new Blu-ray hardware was sold in Q1 2008, those pre-existing owners acquired, on average, just 0.67 BDs each in Q1 2008. Since there were new Blu-ray hardware sales, the real discs-per-owner figure will be rather lower than that as the same number of discs are spread out over a greater number of players.

All of which indicates that, in Q1 at least, HD sales were not great. That's not a reason not to buy in to Blu-ray, of course. There are plenty of movies to buy, and many more coming. But it does indicate that consumers as a whole are not clamouring for HD content.

While it was easy in the past to blame that on the format war, unless Q2 numbers show otherwise, it's clear US consumers have yet to be persuaded of the benefits of going to Blu-ray, particularly while prices remain high. Even the cheapest BD system, the PS3, doesn't seem to be drawing consumers to HD media.

Incidentally, the PS3 is also the most Blu-compatible box in that it supports the greatest range of the format's features. Until the Blu-ray camp really nails down the specification, so that buyers can be certain a purchase will play all of a given disc's content, the BD-backing vendors are doing themselves no favours.

Meanwhile, if the US economy does indeed go into recession, as some economists fear, consumer support for HD media is even less certain.

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