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Time Flies When You’re Having Fun: The DVD Format Turns 20 This Month!

March 1, 2017 - 5:49 pm   |   by
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Yes, folks, it’s true… this month marks the 20th anniversary of the beloved DVD format. The exact date is a matter of debate; some technically consider March 1, 1997 as the official date, though our records show that March 19 technically marks the official start of the U.S. launch, and the format was actually launched first in Japan in November of 1996. Either way, the first players and movie discs weren’t available in the seven initial U.S. test markets (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas, New York, Seattle, and Washington) until much later in March 1997.

Specifically, the first DVD titles appeared at Best Buy, Tower Records, The Good Guys, and other video/electronics stores in those markets on March 24, and the first actual players didn’t arrive in stock until March 26. Warner launched the format with an initial slate of 25 titles, including Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut (as it happens, the first title I purchased – you can see it below), Twister, Batman, GoldenEye, Eraser, The Fugitive, The Glimmer Man, The Mask, and Space Jam, among others. Those titles sold for $19.95 to $24.98. Tell me... do these old Snapper cases (below) look familiar to you? [Read on here…]

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Two of the very first DVDs: Warner's Batman and Blade Runner: The Director's Cut

The format’s first players included the Sony DVP-S7000 and the Toshiba SD-2006 and SD-3006, which sold for $999 and up (the actual first player was a Japanese model from Toshiba, the SD-3000 in November of 1996). I’ll bet a few of you out there remember one of these babies...

Toshiba's first DVD player - the SD-2006

Sony's first DVD player - the DVP-S7000

The early test market runs for the format went very well, with Best Buy (then a chain of 272 stores, and selling DVD in 72 of those) moving over 2,500 movie discs on the format’s first day of availability. Tower Video (50 of the chain’s then 164 stores carried DVD at launch) reported selling 3,000 units in the first week.

As many of you will recall, DTS audio wasn’t initially part of the DVD spec. It was an add-on that came later. Other features that were gradually rolled out in the first year or two post-launch were DVD-ROM functionality, multi-angle, seamless branching, and DVD-9 and DVD-18 multilayered discs, that allowed for more content to be included per disc. And while many forget it now, anamorphic widescreen (16x9) video was a feature of Blu-ray that was touted early on by some of the launch studios, but it really took a year or two for the rest of the industry to adopt it. In fact, some of you longtime readers will recall that I personally spent a great deal of time in those first couple of years explaining why anamorphic enhancement was important to the various Hollywood studios and convincing them to adopt the feature.

It’s also worth remembering that Fox, Paramount, Dreamworks SKG, Universal, and Disney initially didn’t support DVD – they attempted first to get behind its pay-per-view rival format, Divx, which was launched by Circuit City in April 1998. The first Divx player was the Zenith/Inteq DVX-2100. Divx movie discs sold for just $4.50, mostly in Circuit City stores, which allowed you one viewing once you established your Divx account (the player connected to the Divx system via a phone line). To watch the disc again, you had to pay an additional $3.25. You could later “convert” the disc to Divx Silver unlimited viewing for a one-time cost of $12.49. Or, you could also simply purchase the disc as a Divx Gold title right from the start and pay full price.

Here are some incredibly low resolution pictures from our coverage of Divx back in 1998 (this is the best resolution that digital cameras, which were brand new at the time, were capable of back then). That’s me, your earnest Bits Editor, looking mighty damn young...

Pix from The Bits' coverage of Divx in 1998.

Divx finally died on June 16, 1999, when Circuit City pulled the plug. But we called the format a bad idea right at the very beginning. In fact, The Digital Bits actually gave the world its very first look at Divx in an article we posted here on the site on March 17, 1998 (you can see it here, old school look and all). We gave the concept a fair shake, explained all its features, and then essentially said it was a terrible idea that would never catch on with consumers. We were soon proven right; a few years later, PC World magazine called Divx one of the “25 Worst Tech Products of All Time”.

With Divx out of the way, the remaining holdout studios quickly jumped on the DVD bandwagon. Pioneer launched their laserdisc/DVD combo player, the Pioneer DVL-90. The first true DVD special editions began to appear in late 1998. One of the first real box sets to arrive was Fox’s The Alien Legacy set on June 1, 1999. Of course, the first Star Wars movie on the format didn’t arrive until September of 2001... Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

We’ll talk more about the launch of DVD all this month here at The Bits, but I thought many of you longtime readers would appreciate a little look back today at the start of DVD, and event that changed all of our lives and which eventually led to a new Golden Age of home media here in the States... not to mention the most successful home media format of all time. Time sure flies when you’re having fun.

Two quick pieces of regular news today...

Shout! Factory has just announced that its next Shout Select Blu-ray release will be a Where the Buffalo Roam: Collector’s Edition due to be released in June.

Also, for those of you who are fans of Twilight Time, the label is holding a big MGM/UA March Madness Sale starting today at 4 PM Eastern (1 PM Pacific). The sale runs all month on their online store and also over at Screen Archives Entertainment.

That’s all for now. Stay tuned...

- Bill Hunt


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