Saturday, January 6, 2007

On the Whole Product

Is it just me, or has the entertainment industry made a gawdawful hash of the concept of the Whole Product, at least as it applies to home entertainment?

I'd say the VHS format is the most spectacularly successful example of the Whole Product in the entertainment world (with, possibly, the audiocassette). The Whole Product is very important when discussing VHS, because the current conventional wisdom says this is how VHS won the standards war against Betamax. The story is well known -- JVC made VHS a more open and more flexible standard than Sony did with Beta, with longer recording times (especially the EP setting on NTSC gear) and a more open licensing policy beating out a theoretically better picture to create a juggernaut of a standard, one that ruled the roost for over twenty-five years until getting beat out by the DVD.

You will not find a better illustration of the Whole Product concept than the VHS standard. Not only can you record television programs on a VHS VCR with no limitation, you can also use a VHS camcorder to record your own content and play it back on the same VCR. At this point, you also have the option of multiple venues for your work, from the TV in the kitchen all the way up to the local public access station, or even YouTube or Current if you can digitize your footage.

No other format has this kind of flexibility. VHS is the least common denominator for everything. Everything works the same, all the media is interchangeable. Granted, shitty picture, but still. Everyone has it. Everyone knows how to work with it. It's on the way out, but it's still here and not likely to go away completely any time soon. It's democracy on a half-inch tape.

Now, compare the current move to high-definition television.

The entertainment industry has butchered promising new standards to preserve its profits and control many times. DAT died in 2005; MiniDisc will probably follow it this year or next. Both were heavily encumbered by the **AAs' fear of losing revenue to digital copying. DV is another example; while you will never find a better format for standard-definition video acquisition (equipment is cheap and generally produces a high-quality picture), the idea of it becoming the next VHS died on the vine because its creators didn't give the entertainment industry its pound of flesh. No, it's all about DVD these days. DVD is a great idea, mind you, but it has flaws -- copy protection, for example, and the bizarre and often incompatible bestiary that is the recordable DVD market. The Whole Product is rather lacking in all those cases.

But the high-definition world is a whole 'nother level of nuts. Everything is locked down -- I once had a TV have a hissyfit about compromised DRM because I rebooted the cable box. BluRay video has an entire suite of nefarious garbage implemented and ready to go to make life a living hell for anyone who dares use their BluRay movies in a way not approved by the studio. On the production side, the tools are there (although the cameras are rather pricey), but there are no venues for your finished high-def project. That puts us back to living room film festivals like in the old days. Bottom line: they aren't going to give you the whole product, because you might -- might -- use it in a way that they don't approve of or didn't think of, and because every eyeball you have watching your low-budget cooking show is an eyeball that isn't watching their product.

So think about that a moment before you do an upload or turn in a videotape to the scheduling office. Unless you get a break with a big production company, this is as good as it's ever going to get.

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