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Blu-Ray Disc Backers Taste Victory in DVD Format War

The International Consumer Electronics Show is turning out to be a celebration party for Blu-ray, the high-definition format that Sony Corp. backed, and a wake for a rival movie disc technology pushed by Toshiba Corp.

Just two months ago, Sony CEO Howard Stringer said the fight between Blu-ray and Toshiba's HD DVD was at a "stalemate," and expressed a wish to travel back in time to avert it.

The impasse was broken Friday by Warner Bros. Entertainment, the last major studio to put out movies in both formats. It announced it was ditching HD DVD, and from May on, would only publish on Blu-ray and traditional DVD.

[On Tuesday, the Financial Times reported that Paramount Pictures, which currently distributes movies only in HD DVD, would switch to Blu-ray. The newspaper said Paramount had a clause in its contract with the HD DVD licensers that allowed it to do so if Warner Bros. dropped HD DVD.]

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The decision puts a strong majority of the major studios, five versus two, in the Blu-ray camp.

Asked Monday at the show if the Warner announcement decides the format war, Stringer said: "I never put up banners that say 'Mission Accomplished.'"

But his cheerful delivery belied his words.

By contrast, the main media event scheduled for the show by the North American HD DVD Promotional Group, which includes Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp., was canceled because of Warner's defection.

"We are currently discussing the potential impact of this announcement with the other HD DVD partner companies and evaluating next steps," the group said in a statement.

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The shift in the format struggle isn't a reason to run out and buy Blu-ray players, however: today's players can't take advantage of the features planned for future Blu-ray discs.

On Monday, Panasonic parent Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. demonstrated prototypes that can handle the new interactive features coming to Blu-ray.

This spring, Panasonic plans to introduce a player for the so-called BD-Live standard. It will be able to connect to the Internet to download movie trailers, and will be able to play simple games.

At the Blu-ray booth at CES, a prototype Panasonic player was showing an "Alien vs. Predator" movie in which the viewer can get involved by bringing up an on-screen gun, controlled by the remote, and shooting at monsters to score points.

In November, Panasonic launched the first player to include picture-in-picture capability, which allows viewers to watch the director or actor providing commentary in a small window while the movie plays full-screen.

Sony's PlayStation 3 game console — which can play Blu-ray discs — gained the same capability in December via a software update.

HD DVD players have had most of these capabilities. Starting with the first ones sold, in 2006, Toshiba's players have had picture-in-picture capabilities and have been able to connect to the Internet to download trailers.

The HD DVD of "Evan Almighty" even allows the viewer to go to an online store to buy merchandise related to the movie.

Kevin Tsujihara, president of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group, acknowledged in an interview that the HD DVD format had some advantages.

"The interactivity is more advanced on the HD DVD side, but I'm confident that we're going to get there" with Blu-ray, he said.

HD DVD discs were also cheaper to produce, being more similar to traditional DVDs than Blu-ray discs.

"There were cost advantages on the HD DVD side," Tsujihara said. However, "even with that price advantage, you weren't seeing the consumer move toward that format."

Warner's Blu-ray discs outsold their HD DVD rivals by three to two in the holiday season, not counting "Planet Earth" titles, which had an unusual following among owners of HD DVD players, Tsujihara said.

The fight between Blu-ray and HD DVD is reminiscent of the struggle between Betamax and VHS to dominate video tapes.

In that case, the results were the opposite: Sony's more costly higher-quality Betamax lost out to the cheap and convenient VHS.

Rob Bohl of Highland Park, N.J., bought an HD DVD player in December for $179.98, without considering a Blu-ray player instead. He had forgotten about the other format.

"I wish I had been more careful and waited," he said.

He feels a bit "burned" by the experience, but it's probably not enough to keep him out of the market.

"The fact is: when I get my tax refund, they'll probably have a cheap player, and I'll probably wind up getting one," Bohl said.

The thought that does give him pause, he said, is that the whole upgrade to high-definition discs might be a waste of time, because of the increasing availability of movies to download off the Internet.

Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360 game console can already download and show high-definition movies, and Vudu Inc.'s Internet video set-top box started providing HD content in December.