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Blu-ray for everyone

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has added a weapon to its home-video arsenal that will appeal to those who unwrapped a Blu-ray player Friday morning - or are considering picking up one at an after-Christmas sale. Beginning early next year, Warner Bros. will offer its entire slate of new releases in combo Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy sets for the same price as standard DVD releases.

This means that with one purchase, a family can enjoy a title in three formats: on the home-theater HDTV, in the sport utility vehicle's DVD player for the kiddies during long drives, and on portable devices such as laptops and smart phones.

Though Pixar and Disney have released similar packages in the past, Warner Bros. seems to be the studio most committed to making the Blu-ray format accessible to the average customer.

This is slightly surprising because Warner Bros. backed the wrong horse early on in the high-definition home-entertainment format war of the midaughts, throwing its weight behind Toshiba and HD-DVD.

Though that format was on the market first and more cheaply than the competing systems, Blu-ray impressed customers and studios alike with its more powerful technical specifications and had built-in advantages - such as being the native format for the PlayStation 3, Sony's follow-up to the PlayStation 2, which was arguably the most popular video-game system of all time.

But Warner Home Entertainment hasn't held a grudge; it even has created a variety of initiatives intended to woo customers to the new format.

First came the Red 2 Blu program, Warner's offer to accept trade-ins of now-obsolete HD-DVDs in exchange for the same title on Blu-ray. For $4.95 per disc (plus the cost of shipping), customers who had chosen the wrong side in the Second Great Format War could upgrade to a high-definition disc.

It was a savvy move for the studio, one that enabled it to squeeze a little extra profit out of customers - estimates vary, but the manufacturing cost of a Blu-ray disc and its packaging hovers around $1 - while maintaining a veneer of caring about the early adopters who had fallen on the wrong side of the high-definition divide.

Picking up on the success of that program, Warner then announced a similar deal on standard-definition DVDs. DVD 2 Blu, as this program was christened, offered customers the chance to upgrade from DVD to Blu-ray for $7.95 or $9.95.

Though a less impressive deal than Red 2 Blu - some of the titles, such as "2001: A Space Odyssey," can be had for roughly the same price at shops such as Amazon.com - it once again signified that Warner Bros. was serious about making high-definition inroads into homes.

These inroads are incredibly important, given Blu-ray's standing in the marketplace. Though it delivers a superior picture and upgrades standard-definition DVDs to near-HD quality through a process known as upscaling (or upconversion), stand-alone Blu-ray players are estimated to be in just 7 percent of households.

That number doesn't include Sony's PlayStation 3, which plays Blu-ray discs and has sold 11.4 million units in the United States since its launch in 2006. When both are considered, industry analysts point out that Blu-ray is ahead of DVD in terms of market penetration at the same point in their existence.

With players dropping below $100 for the first time this Christmas season and numbers of both discs and players sold up across the board, Blu-ray's time finally may have come. Whether other studios will follow Warner Bros.' lead and capitalize on this surge of interest in the format remains to be seen.

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