Is HDR Worth It?

OTTAWA, ONTARIO—It’s official: the Consumer Electronics Association has announcedits industry definition for High Dynamic Range compatible video displays. In doing so, the CEA has set a standard for consumers and retailers to rely on when buying a HDR compatible display, be it a TV set, monitor, or video projector. Compared to standard HD, HDR TVs offer much greater contrast between light and dark images, thus providing a far more realistic viewing experience.

“HDR provides a significant step-up in delivering an incredible viewing experience for the consumer,” said Brian Markwalter, senior vice president of research and standards for CEA. “We encourage manufacturers and our industry partners to use this voluntary compatibility guideline to provide greater consistency and clarity while ensuring compatibility and interoperability across the full content development to display ecosystem.”

LG Electronics promoted its lineup of OLED TV sets with support for HDR at the recent IFA in Berlin.
For broadcasters, CEA’s establishment of an HDR standard signals the arrival of this new technology. The problem is that today’s HDTV broadcast plants are unable to broadcast HDR/HDTV programs; let alone the HDR/4K content that consumer TVs are starting to support and that Web-based OTT providers such as Amazon and Netflix are beginning to offer.

Add the recent announcement from Rogers Communications that its cable service—Canada’s largest—will begin offering live sports in 4K and HDR starting with the Toronto Blue Jays home opener in April 2016, as well as 20th Century Fox movie studio’s support for HDR/4K home viewing; the push to offer HDR/4K on the next generation of Blu-ray (Ultra HD Blu-ray) discs and the new Vidity dockable HDD players, and the push to woo consumers to HDR is in full swing. The question is how will broadcasters be able to respond without breaking the bank?

The reason consumer TV manufacturers are promoting HDR/4K when very little content exists is the same reason they’ve been selling 4K sets and 3DTVs before that: they need to make money. “We want to speed up the TV replacement cycle, especially with the addition of HDR,” said Peter Fannon, vice president of corporate and governmental affairs for Panasonic.

There’s a good reason for Fannon’s assertion. “TV sales in the second quarter of 2015 were down 8 percent,” said Peter Putman, president of Roam Consulting in Doylestown, Pa., and one of three SMPTE Education Directors. Worse yet, this is just the latest drop in a consistent five-year sales decline. According tothe German statistics compilation firm Statista, global LCD TV sales peaked at 104 billion euros (US$116.48 billion), and has fallen annually since then; with 2014 sales at 95.7 billion euros ($107 billion) and 2015 sales projected to fall to 93.5 billion euros (US$104.7 billion).

Faced with this constant decline, TV manufacturers are pushing HDR/4K TVs hard; even though they know that virtually no content exists for consumers to watch at home.

“If there is HDR content, it would show up well on our OLED displays,” said Dr. Nandhu Nandhakumar, senior vice president of advanced technology for LG Electronics USA. “Besides, although HDR doesn’t exist on broadcast TV, the fact that 20th Century Fox, Amazon and Netflix are supporting HDR/4K content, plus the development of Ultra HD Blu-ray and Vidity dockable HDD players, means that content is on its way.”

It cost broadcasters millions of dollars to convert their broadcast plants from analog to digital. Unfortunately, it would cost them even more money to transmit HDR content, because the system isn’t compatible with the current ATSC 1.0 standard.

“HDR requires at least 10-bit color, whereas the MPEG-2 system now being used by U.S. broadcasters uses 8-bit color,” said Putman. “The ATSC 3.0 standard now being tested does support HDR and 4K. But ATSC 3.0 is not backward-compatible. If you completely upgrade your station to ATSC 3.0 when this becomes possible, viewers with older generation, ATSC 1.0 HDTVs won’t be able to see your broadcasts.”

For broadcasters, HDR is not just a challenge, it is a true dilemma. “TV broadcasters are in a position where their viewers are increasingly stepping up to the TV equivalent of Ferraris, but today’s TV broadcast highway is still a slow gravel road,” said Putman. “If the broadcasters want to keep these Ferraris from going elsewhere, they’ve got to build a faster highway—but who will pay?”

This same dilemma doesn’t exist for OTT services like Amazon or Netflix, because they can theoretically offer HDR/4K, 8K, or even 16K programming should the demand arise for it, and the bandwidth into the home would be sufficient to support it. Meanwhile, supporting HDR/4K gives Blu-ray manufacturers the chance to sell current DVD and Blu-ray player owners a whole new generation of devices; just as the TV manufacturers hope to do with HDR/4KTVs.

The worst part for broadcasters: even if they do spend millions to adopt ATSC 3.0 and support HDR/4K when they can, there is nothing to stop TV manufacturers from pushing the resolution envelope to 8K and beyond once they have decided that everyone has a 4KTV and the only way to boost sales is to start another replacement cycle.

It is ironic that U.S. TV broadcasters spearheaded the launch of HDTV, in a bid to protect their analog spectrum—and their businesses—from encroachment by other users. The success broadcasters achieved by launching HDTV taught TV manufacturers that there was big money to be made from consumers replacing their current TVs with new, more capable models every few years; just like personal computer manufacturers have been doing for decades. What remains to be seen is whether TV broadcasters can cope with the fallout from this sales cycle, and the TV manufacturers’ push for ever-increasing resolution TV pictures.

James Careless is an award-winning journalist who has written for TV Technology since the 1990s. He has covered HDTV from the days of the six competing HDTV formats that led to the 1993 Grand Alliance, and onwards through ATSC 3.0 and OTT. He also writes for Radio World, along with other publications in aerospace, defense, public safety, streaming media, plus the amusement park industry for something different.