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The Year in TV Technology

Tom Butts

The past year won’t go down as a particularly momentous one in the history of television technology but a number of developments helped to clarify where our industry is going and how we’ll get there.

Had you done a search for the term “UHDTV” on prior to 2013, you’d have found perhaps a smattering of stories about a format that many in our industry thought wouldn’t be a reality for a few more years. That is, until the 2013 International CES. If you thought UHDTV was just an abstract format, the annual consumer electronics show erased any doubts. It was clearly the star of the show, with at least a dozen manufacturers offering up new big-screen sets. After the dismal failure of 3DTV, vendors were eager to show off the next big thing and UHDTV was it.

As sets made their way to the market, prices predictably started to plummet as retailers eagerly adopted the new living room displays. But what consumers saw on the sets in the stores barely represented what they would see once the sets made their way home. We spent the rest of the year debating the validity of a format that defied the old John Houseman adage that “we will sell no wine before its time.” Experts at industry confabs including the NAB Show, SMPTE, HPA Tech Retreat and IBC all conjectured about how to get UHD content to the home screen and whether or not 1080p was “good enough.” Content providers such as Netflix and Amazon announced plans to introduce UHD content for home viewing within the next 12 months, but how that content will fit within the limited bandwidth is anybody’s guess.

And of course there are the rest of us who wonder aloud whether or not the format is even necessary. At the end of the year NBC News sparked more debate with a report that most consumer screens from smartphones to tablets and big screen TVs had enough pixels and that resolutions already surpass the limits of human vision. Manufacturers begged to differ but one neuroscientist responded, “History has shown that people make something technologically possible, then someone figures out how to capitalize on it. But for TVs, I don’t see a point.” Another sniffed about such resolution claims: “It’s a waste of time, if you ask me.” Of course, resolution is just one part of the equation; other elements such as frame rates and color density could make the difference in quality.

It was a mixed year for broadcasters. Retransmission was a sensitive point between the industry and pay-TV, with public battles laying bare the realities involved in balancing viewer choice with rising fees. And for the most part, broadcasters were glad to see the end of the Genachowski era; by the end of the year the new chairman acknowledged the reality that spectrum auctions were not ready for primetime, delaying the process for another year.

Technically savvy viewers, however, continued to doubt the value of pay-TV, “cutting the cord” in favor of a mix of free over-the-air TV and broadband-only video services such as Hulu, Netflix and Amazon, which also broke into the original programming market in a big way. But broadcasters also began to capitalize more on one of the things they do best: live programming in both sports and entertainment. Despite mixed reviews, NBC’s highly rated live broadcast of “The Sound of Music” last month demonstrated the popularity of such productions, with the network announcing plans for more live shows in 2014.

Perhaps no other technology had as big an impact on our industry in 2013 as the tablet. Although some pundits used its growing popularity (worldwide sales this year soared 53 percent, translating into more than 221 million) to tout their annual “death of TV” obits, such rumors of TV’s demise are of course, greatly exaggerated, as I think next week’s International CES will attest.

Although some things did change in 2013, one thing didn’t: The number of industry “experts” predicting that the world’s most valuable consumer electroncis brand would break into the TV set business and concentrate on adding new content to its existing OTT device. And that just goes to prove that despite all the fancy new devices on the market, content is still king.

Hello 2014!

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 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 (, 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.