iTunes movies in HD -- will the consumer bite?

It may sound perverse, but my introduction to high-definition video came through my bunny ears. Yes, my household is one of the remaining holdouts that gets its television over the air; and when I finally figured out earlier this year how to get my thirtysomething-inch flatscreen TV to pick up the new digital signals that our local stations are pumping out, I was completely flabbergasted at how good the picture quality was. I mean, if you're watching a scene in The Office filmed several hours after the last time Steve Carrell shaved, you sure know it.

But much of the novelty here comes from the fact that I'm used to my broadcast TV being snowy and analog. When it comes to other content, though, the improvement just isn't as striking. It's true that on my new TV I can tell the difference between DVD-quality movies and HD movies; but I'm not particularly impressed by the difference, the way I was the first time I compared DVD and VHS. I'm certainly not impressed enough to go drop a couple hundred dollars on a Blu-ray player.

Apple has apparently made a similar decision about Blu-ray, with Steve Jobs famously referring to the format as a "a bag of hurt" when it comes to licensing. But part of the company's reasons for avoiding Blu-ray came into sharper focus (ha ha, get it?) today as HD movies joined other HD content at the iTunes store. Apple is betting that digital distribution is the future of media purchasing anyway, and so has no incentive to untangle that Blu-ray licensing mess.

But oof, those prices! $20 to purchase a high-def movie, with dogs like Bangkok Dangerous, Transporter 3, and Punisher: War Zone, being apparently the best of what's on offer? The genius of the iTunes store, for me anyway, has been its ability to sell you things in impulse-buy-sized chunks; thus, when I miss The Office on Thursdays, I pay $3 to buy the episodes I miss without much of a second thought. But $20 is something you think about, and what I'd think is, "Is HD really worth this?" Heck, I don't even bother downloading the HD version of TV shows I buy, which you get for free, because I don't have the patience to wait for the download. I wonder how many people beyond the hard core of media geeks with 60-inch home theater centers will ever be regular purchasers of $20 HD movies.

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