LOS ANGELES - First, there was the war between eight-track tapes and cassettes. Then there was Betamax versus VHS. Now a new battle for the future of home entertainment is once again forcing consumers to choose.
High-definition DVDs are supposed to provide sharp, wide-screen images to fill the more than 30 million HD television sets that have been sold. They also are meant to replace standard definition DVDs, providing studios with a new source of profits.
After much anticipation, however, the two competing formats have debuted to a big yawn.
Retailers report slow sales of the expensive machines required to play the new discs as gun-shy consumers wait for one of the formats to prevail. Studios have held back issuing high-def versions of their most desired titles because so few players exist.
"I'm not jumping on this bandwagon yet," said John Scally, 39, of Elizabeth, N.J., who has already spent thousands of dollars on a high-def TV set and subscribes to HD channels through his satellite TV provider.
"I'm a semi-early adopter, but I'll wait at least a year, maybe two, for this to play out," Mr. Scally said."
Complicating the choice is the increasing availability of movies and TV shows for download online, bypassing the need for a physical disc format.
Apple Computer Inc. just launched its long-awaited movie download store and a slim device, called iTV, designed to wirelessly stream movies from a computer or other storage device to a TV set.
Web-based services, however, do not yet offer high-definition versions of films because the size of the files would be enormous, requiring hours for a download.
Consumers unwilling to wait for high-definition movies at home must choose between discs and players in the Blu-ray format, backed primarily by Sony Corp., and HD DVD, championed by Toshiba Corp.
Both formats deliver high-definition pictures and sound, but are incompatible - just as Betamax and VHS video cassettes were in the 1980s.
High-def DVDs can't be played on current DVD players, and new players range from $500 to $1,000. If one format ends up winning the war, consumers could be saddled with useless equipment, although the new players do play current, standard-definition DVDs.
Studios need the format to succeed. Entertainment companies already earn more from DVD sales than from box office receipts. Home video sales, however, have leveled off and studios need to replace that income.
The new discs can hold far more data than current DVDs, allowing studios to pack them full of interactive features, including games.
But there appears to be less demand than anticipated for high-def content that can play on new digital widescreen TV sets.
Retailers report disappointing sales after Toshiba released its $499 HD DVD player in March and Samsung began selling its $1,000 Blu-ray player in June.
Brian Solis, of Redwood City, Calif., scared off by both the cost of the new machines and the possibility of betting on the wrong format, bought an inexpensive DVD player that can play his existing DVDs at something close to high-definition quality.
"I am going to upgrade everything, but not until the prices come down," Mr. Solis said.