After years of false starts, the digital videodisc--a five-inch platter touted as far superior to VHS and laserdisc--is finally arriving. But will viewers bite?

The lines were long, the temperatures frigid. Even so, thousands of visitors mobbed the Mall in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 18 and 19 for an inaugural-weekend peek at the future of home electronics and multimedia. At the Technology Playground, a huge heated-tent exhibit, shivering crowds warmed up amid the usual big-screen TVs and interactive games. But they also got a first look at a long-delayed product the electronics industry has been touting for the past few years as the Great Silver Hope — a CD-size disc that’s intended to serve as both a home-video and a computer-software format. Step right up, folks, and take a gander at the five-inch digital videodisc.

Of course, the pavilion’s heaters weren’t the only source of hot air. DVD is floating in on a whirlwind of hype that might give even a politician pause. What’s known for sure: DVDs will pack up to 20 times more data than CD-ROMs into the same slim package. How? Via smaller, denser pits and finer-pitch laser beams to read them, in players due in stores early this year that will retail for $500 to $1,000. DVD movies, up to 60 of which should be out by April (most at $30 and under), are said to look markedly sharper than VHS tapes and to sound demonstrably better, in six-channel Dolby Digital surround. Each disc also has enough storage space to deliver multiple versions of a movie (say, PG- and R-rated, cropped and wide-screen), plus a variety of foreign-language and subtitle options.

DVD’s most vocal cheerleaders, primarily Sony and Warner Home Video (which, along with ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, is owned by Time Warner, a principal developer of DVD technology), have been promising a library of 250 movie titles at launch time for several years now. The opening roster of films unveiled earlier in January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, however, is nowhere near that large. At most, 100 titles will be out by year’s end, and many are already ubiquitous VHS best-sellers, such as Ghostbusters, The Wizard of Oz, The Mask, and Twister.

To date, Warner has earmarked six movies to debut simultaneously on DVD and VHS in 1997 (among them Mars Attacks! and Michael Collins). Label president Warren Lieberfarb believes such an approach is imperative to DVD’s success, since, he says, ”we’re hoping that we’ll have more sell-through than rental.” Meantime, Sony says it plans a few concurrent releases as well, but so far its announced DVD lineup is limited to catalog titles. And the world’s leading purveyor of priced-to-own video programming, Disney’s Buena Vista Home Video, has declined to release anything on DVD, as have FoxVideo and Universal. ”Anyone who has a DVD copy of a movie essentially has a master copy,” says Universal spokesperson Maria LaMagra. ”Until [better] copy protection is assured, we’re not going to be releasing any titles.”

So what’s to lure a consumer to DVD? Mainly, the pleasures of traveling first-class. ”[DVD’s backers] are betting on the one thing that I thought we all understood by now does not work as a selling point, and that’s quality,” says Lance Braithwaite, technical editor of Video Magazine. ”Quality means cost, and Joe Average doesn’t like to dig very deeply into his pocket.” While it’s not clear that viewers happy with VHS will find DVD a necessary improvement (DVD won’t be a recordable format for at least another year), the hype over DVD’s potentially superior picture and sound quality already appears to be striking a serious blow to the 12-inch laserdisc format: Hardware and software sales have plummeted in the past year.

Ironically, some of DVD’s sharper-eyed critics say laserdiscs will continue to offer a better picture than many of the new discs set for release. “I’ve seen a couple of superlative samples of movies on DVD and a number of wretched ones,” says Brent Butterworth, editor of Home Theater magazine. “It’s impossible to say, DVD looks like this.” Why? Because DVD involves a complex compression process—the only way to get both video and audio onto a teeny disc. The busier and noisier the action gets on screen, the more data must be left out. And that translates to odd fluctuations in the image. For instance, the actors in a scene may look fine even as the backgrounds shift and pulsate in unnatural ways. Also, early reports on prototype DVD players indicate that when scanned forward or back, the picture tends to break up into shards of tiny pixels—and sometimes locks up completely.

For planned DVD computer applications, like DVD-ROM, the forecast is less cloudy. “You mention a five-inch disc that has massive memory capacity to a computer person and they go orgasmic,” says Paul Gluckman, New York bureau chief for Warren Publishing (whose newsletters include Video Week and Television Digest). “It’s only the video industry that still sees DVD as a show-me-why format.” Which means that in the next few months, DVD may have a lot more to do with clicking your mouse than watching a movie hosted by Mickey.

(Additional reporting by James Willcox)