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HBO pioneer writes off 4K prospects

HBO CTO Bob Zitter, who retires this month, had a sting in his tail for delegates at the TV Connect show in London, with his declaration that 3-D with glasses was dead and that prospects for 4K were little better.

While many in the industry would agree with the first point, Zitter’s prediction that few TV consumers want 4K is more controversial, with the Consumer Electronics sector backing it heavily to secure higher margins. But in a keynote entitled Technology: catalyst for change in TV, Zitter argued that 4K was billed as the next big thing largely because digital cinema needed 4K, or even 8K, for movie production.

While this was justified for cinema sized screens, TV viewers would barely notice the difference between 4K and existing HD on sets around 60in-70in in size, which Zitter reckoned would be the maximum size widely deployed. On this basis, the industry certainly need look no further than 1080p HD, which is double the resolution of 1080i or 720p, and is itself not widely deployed for linear TV delivery. Again, the conventional wisdom within the industry is that 1080p HD does not deliver a substantial enough increase in quality over 1080i or 720p HD to be worth the effort of deploying across the content ecosystem, and that the logical next step forward would be to 4K.

The case for 4K has been bolstered by ratification of HEVC (High Efficiently Video Coding), which works particularly well for 4K on large screens where it is expected eventually to deliver considerably more than the widely cited twofold improvement in compression efficiency compared with H.264/MPEG4.

But with 4K deployments still likely several years away, Zitter is betting on consumer apathy eventually stifling the project, as has happened with 3-D. Zitter cannot be accused though of failing to back emerging TV technology when he does believe its time is coming, as was recognized at TV Connect last week with the award for Outstanding Contribution to the Industry for his role in many of TV’s greatest innovations, including satellite adoption, digital video, HD and VOD (Video On Demand) during his 30 year spell at HBO.