Steve Nickerson: DVD Launch Memories from the Front Row

Twenty-five years is a long time that passes in the blink of an eye.

The No. 1 song in March 1997 was “Wannabe,” by the Spice Girls, and the two biggest movies that month were Liar, Liar, starring Jim Carrey, and Private Parts, starring Howard Stern. Also in that month, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” made its TV debut and the Arizona Wildcats won their first NCAA basketball championship.

March 1997 also saw the launch of two new “digital” consumer products in the United States — the Palm Pilot and the very first DVD players.

If you want to know more about what happened with the Palm Pilot you will have to Google it or visit Wikipedia.

But about those DVD players, what follows are the memories and recollections of someone who had a front-row seat to the activities leading up to those initial players being shipped in March 1997, as well as some of the key events that would follow in the next few years, which all led to sales of DVDs being the single biggest revenue source for all the Hollywood studios from 2000 to 2010.

Like most “overnight” successes, the road to the launch of DVD was long and hard. I remember the first time I saw a “demonstration” of DVD at the Toshiba R&D facility in Tokyo in 1994. The technology was nowhere close to where it needed to be, but we were given a demo so that we could more easily say no to the request of our biggest U.S. customer, Circuit City, which wanted us to support a different disc based format (that four years later would be Divx!!!)

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The following spring (1995) we did demonstrations of DVD to all of our U.S. customers during our national sales meeting at the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas. There is a whole other article that could be written of the foibles of “showcasing” a not-yet-ready new technology at an island resort that had been open less than 60 days. Instead, let’s just say the meeting attendees were completely and absolutely underwhelmed.

The initial response from most executives at the biggest consumer electronics retailers of that time went something like this – “We already have laser disc players and nobody buys those” and “What customers will replace their VCRs with a device that DOESN’T record” and “Nobody will pay $600 for that!”

One of the big “selling” points of DVD technology was that the storage capacity of the disc was going to transform multiple industries. It was not just going to revolutionize the way we watch films and TV shows at home, but it also would transform the music industry (DVD Audio) and the computer industry (DVD-Rom). As a selling point to retail channel partners, the idea of having three different industries having new products being driven off this one new technology for the next 10 to 15 years was, at the very least, intriguing. But the reality was that having six different constituents (hardware and software for music, computing, and video) in the room while trying to finalize the specifications of DVD technology was, at the very least, an absolute nightmare!!

(It should not be minimized that many of the key players at the time were also involved with another multi-industry “launch” effort, that of high-definition TV.)

Various consumer electronics companies used the winter CES in January 1996 to “showcase” their soon-to-be-delivered DVD players to the press and to the industry. But the final specifications, and details around copy protection and region coding — which was a critical component for the Hollywood studios — were still being negotiated, so all those products shown in Las Vegas were prototypes, not mass manufactured, consumer ready products.

The entire year of 1996 was spent trying to create support for DVD on two fronts. The first was with the various companies that hopefully would be manufacturing and selling some type of DVD product, essentially either a disc or a player. The second was with retail channel partners, whose support was essential for a successful launch, as they would be the ones interfacing with the end consumer and explaining all the astonishing benefits they would get from this new shiny disc.

The saying “Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan” is often used to indicate that many people take credit for wins, and no one shoulders the responsibility for losses. But in the case of the success of DVD, there were certainly key individuals who were the “visionaries,” while there were other people who were the tireless “drivers” and “evangelists.”  Additionally, there were numerous “foot soldiers” who worked endless hours doing groundbreaking work to make manufacturing the products even possible. Without the successful combination of all of these “fathers,” DVD might not have been the most successful CE product launch ever, but it might have joined many other “breakthrough” technologies in the consumer goods “orphanage.”

Because of the eventual success of DVD, the “revisionist” history often states it was a “hit” from the launch in March 1997. But the reality is that there were only a few companies involved in the first nine months the product was available (three to four studios and three to four CE companies), while others took a “wait and see” approach. There were about 350,000 players sold to U.S. consumers in 1997. Many people forget about the post-launch “format war” in late ’97 and early ’98 that was created by Circuit City, some CE companies, and some Hollywood studios. It is scary to think of how different things would have been for Hollywood if that “war” had lasted a couple of years, instead of just several months.

However, once that format skirmish had passed, for the DVD format it was off to the races, and the next seven to eight years was truly a “boomtown” for any company that was serious about the DVD business.

And then came BD vs HD-DVD … oh well, sorry, we have run out of time, so we’ll leave that story for another day!!!!

Steve Nickerson was SVP of Sales and Marketing for Toshiba America Consumer Products — a subsidiary of Toshiba Corp., the company that manufactured the very first DVD player — from 1991 to 2000. He later spent seven years on the software side at Warner Home Video.

OTT.X to Host Career and Leadership Development Summit

OTT.X on July 28 announced plans to host its first-ever Career and Leadership Development Summit on Aug. 12, using an online format similar to its popular “OTT.X Online Live” sessions.

The summit will feature three components, including a conference session with career and leadership development presentations delivered by successful executives; a series of informal discussion sessions between industry executives and conference attendees; and a “happy-hour” networking session.

Steve Nickerson

Featured speakers include industry veterans Steve Nickerson, formerly of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment and Toshiba Corp.; Jason Peterson, chairman of the GoDigital Media Group; and Michele Edelman, head of growth with Premiere Video.

Other speakers include Teresa Philips, CEO of Spherex; Narendra Reddy, EVP and GM of The Africa Channel; and Paulette Pantoja, CEO of Blu; Jill Allen, SVP of digital distribution for Sony Pictures; Beth Anderson, AVP of digital strategy and business development for BBC Studios; Allison Martin, senior manager of content planning for BBC Studios; Kristen Bedno, director of domestic distribution and marketing for Vision Films; Lise Romanoff, managing director and CEO of worldwide distribution for Vision Films; and Lonni Silverman, director of client services, for Sony Pictures.

“The goal of the summit is to help prepare an inclusive population of professionals interested in advancing in business and technical roles in the entertainment industry and to provide opportunities to develop their leadership skills, contacts and confidence,” said Mark Fisher, OTT.X president and CEO. “Supporting the growth and professional development of future leaders and the diversity of those holding leadership positions is vital to our industry’s continued success. Our first Leadership Development Summit will provide a platform for leaders to share valuable insights and for a diverse community of professionals of all levels to connect and learn from each other.”

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Jason Peterson

Fisher also will speak, as will Eric Hanson, OTT.X’s VP of industry leadership.

To create an inclusive and diverse community of participants, women and minorities are especially encouraged to register and attend, Fisher said. The morning conference portion of the event is free for all OTT industry professionals. Afternoon discussion and networking sessions are free to any employee of an OTT.X member organization.

The conference is being hosted by OTT.X’s Leadership Development Foundation (LDF), an organization dedicated to the vision of a diverse and inclusive business and technical workforce in the OTT video entertainment industry, supported by a broad range of career and leadership development opportunities. The LDF is overseen by a steering committee with representatives from content providers, channels, retailers and service providers in the OTT video industry.

For more information and to register visit the OTT.X website.

Honoring DVD Pioneers

Four industry veterans crucial to the launch of DVD were joined at an informal dinner July 11 as a precursor to the Los Angeles Media and Entertainment Golf Tournament on July 15, where they will be officially honored for their contributions to DVD, which triggered the start of home entertainment’s digital revolution. Warren Lieberfarb, David Bishop, Steve Nickerson and Mike Fidler dined alongside various other past and present executives, including Ryan Pirozzi of Amazon, Eddie Cunningham of Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, Amy Jo Smith of DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group, and 20th Century Fox innovators Mike Dunn and Danny Kaye, both of whom left the studio earlier this year when Disney’s takeover was complete. The golf tournament is being held at the North Ranch Country Club in Westlake Village, with all proceeds benefitting the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Four ‘Digital Revolution’ Pioneers to Be Honored at Industry Golf Tournament

Four industry veterans crucial to the launch of DVD — which signaled the start of home entertainment’s digital revolution — will be honored at the Los Angeles Media and Entertainment Golf Tournament on July 15.

The tournament takes place the Monday prior to the ninth annual LAES and OTT Conference, produced by the Entertainment Merchants Association. It will be held at the North Ranch Country Club in Westlake Village, with all proceeds benefitting the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

The honored “foursome” includes Warren Lieberfarb, the former president of Warner Home Video who has been widely hailed as the “father” of DVD.  Other honorees include former MGM Home Entertainment and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment president David Bishop; former Toshiba and Warner executive Steve Nickerson; and former Sony Electronics executive Mike Fidler, president of the UHD Alliance.

All four played key roles in the launch of DVD, which shifted home entertainment from a rental to a purchase model and introduced digital into what had been an analog business. DVD subsequently gave way to Blu-ray Disc, which opened the door to digital movie sales and rentals through the inclusion of a digital copy with each purchased disc. DVD generated  millions of dollars of revenue to studios, becoming an important factor in greenlighting films.

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Lieberfarb not only brought the concept of movies and other content on a digital video disc to fruition, but also rallied the other studios as well as consumer electronics manufacturers to support and heavily promote the new format. Bishop, as head of MGM, was Lieberfarb’s strongest studio ally, while Nickerson was SVP of sales and marketing at Toshiba America Consumer Products, the U.S. arm of the Japanese CE giant that helped develop, and bring to market, the DVD format. Fidler was recruited by Sony Electronics from Pioneer Electronics in 1997 to lead efforts to establish the DVD format in the U.S. market.

“DVD was the start of a digital revolution that allowed movie lovers to collect and enjoy content at home,” said Amy Jo Smith, president and CEO of DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group. “Beyond the actual disc, the launch of DVD saw groundbreaking new partnerships and cooperation across studios and CE manufacturers, component providers, replicators, mastering services and retailers. The development and launch of DVD also laid the foundation in authoring and compression technology that ultimately made it possible for entertainment content to be distributed over broadband.”

The Los Angeles Media and Entertainment Golf Tournament is produced by Mark Horak, a former Warner Home Video and Redbox executive who has two daughters with cystic fibrosis, a progressive, genetic disease that causes persistent lung infections and limits the ability to breathe over time. He launched the tournament in 2012 and from the start donated proceeds to the foundation to support the development of new drugs and treatments to extend the lives of the 30,000 people in the United States with the disease.

Horak believes the time has come to bring the tournament back, not just to raise funds for charity but also as a prime networking opportunity.

“Without the vision, leadership and collaboration of these industry veterans in both Hollywood and the CE industry, consumers would not have the convenient access to high quality content that they have today,” Horak says. “Everyone who operates in the new digital world owe them our sincere thanks.”

Attendees will include executives from the major and independent studios involved with the production and distribution of content, retailers and distributors of digital and physical content, consumer electronics manufacturers and various suppliers of supporting products and services for the media and entertainment industry.

To attend the event sign up here.