4K: Ready or Not

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF tbutts@nbmedia.com
With much less fanfare than when HDTV was introduced in the market 15 years ago, the first UHDTVs started appearing in major consumer electronics retail showrooms this spring. Looking for a modest 55-inch set to replace your current one? You can drop a cool $5,000 on the Sony XBR55X900, which it announced at the NAB Show. For even less than that, you can purchase a Seiki Digital 50-inch screen for $1,400. A digital cinema enthusiast can splurge for a $17,000 LG 84-inch UHDTV.

Apart from a lighter wallet and neighborhood tech bragging rights, what are you really getting for all that? If you’re expecting what the marketers tell you, you’re getting state-of-the- art display technology but you’re also in for some frustration if expectations don’t meet reality.

What is the reality of UHDTV/4KTV today? A lot like it was in the early days of HDTV; that is, beautiful displays that looked nice on the wall but very little to no content. But unlike 15 years ago, expectations weren’t as high as they are today either. Back then, showing an analog picture side-by-side with HD was an eye opening experience for many consumers who were just beginning to enjoy digital quality imaging via DVDs (one could argue that it was DVDs that influenced consumers’ attitude about picture resolution more than HDTV). Today, with a TV life cycle replacement of 6-8 years, many viewers are just beginning to replace their first HDTV sets and many of them became disillusioned with the rapid rise and fall of 3DTV and are understandably skeptical about the next generation of TV technology.

A few of the major consumer electronics companies are aware of this and are trying to dampen enthusiasm. Several months ago, a Samsung executive told a gathering in Europe that when it comes to content, the current crop of UHDTVs are not market-ready. “No UHD TV today will be compatible with UHD standards to come,” said Michael Zoeller, Samsung’s senior director of sales and marketing for the company’s Europe market, according to TV Technology sister publication TWICE. Zoeller added that although Samsung’s line of UHDTVs offers an “Evolution kit” that keeps its S9 85-inch UHD backlit TV updated, even that will not last beyond four or five years.

With major manufacturers bleeding red ink over declining profits from TV set sales, the early decisions will go to those who also own the content. Sony, for example, is offering three 4K mastered 4K Blu-ray discs with the purchase of a new Sony 4K Ultra HDTV. For others though, the road to 4K content will be a long hard slog.

Some primetime television programming is being shot in 4K and that’s only expected to increase as production costs decline. Such future-proofing includes the ability to distribute that content to consumers, but simply put, the lack of infrastructure and evolving standards are standing in the way.

There are intermediate solutions, however. Upconverting 1080P content sounds promising except when you consider that very little of it is being broadcast to consumers already due to bandwidth constraints. Sharp’s new Ultra HD set offers advanced upscaling technology but early reviews have been mixed. Broadcasters are still years away from sending 4K pictures over the air, although the pressure of spectrum auctions and market demand could put pending standards such as ATSC 3.0 on the “fast track.” Ericsson recently demonstrated the first successful end-to-end transmission of true 4K UHD via satellite to Turner Broadcasting’s facilities in Atlanta. Netflix’s anticipated launch of 4K programming will present an interesting look at how such files are handled in an increasingly crowded broadband environment. And new standards such as 6G-SDI and HEVC and the increasing use of fiber in the facility make the future 4K facility inevitable.

As recently as a year ago, there was a high degree of skepticism in the broadcast engineering community about the future validity of 4K for the consumer market. That has subsided somewhat with the introduction of 4K-ready production gear introduced at this year’s NAB Show and the even more rapid market introduction of UHDTV. But as we report in this issue’s cover story on the format, putting all the pieces together for a true end-to-end 4K production/distribution workflow will take a bit longer. If content is the lifeblood of the media facility today, we’re going to need larger, more efficient arteries.

Tom has covered the broadcast technology market for the past 25 years, including three years handling member communications for the National Association of Broadcasters followed by a year as editor of Video Technology News and DTV Business executive newsletters for Phillips Publishing. In 1999 he launched digitalbroadcasting.com for internet B2B portal Verticalnet. He is also a charter member of the CTA's Academy of Digital TV Pioneers. Since 2001, he has been editor-in-chief of TV Tech (www.tvtech.com), the leading source of news and information on broadcast and related media technology and is a frequent contributor and moderator to the brand’s Tech Leadership events.