Here Comes 4K TV, Call the Plumber!

DOYLESTOWN, PA.—These are tough times to be in the television business. In 2011, worldwide shipments of TVs actually declined for the first time since 2004, and are expected to be fl at for 2012. Two Korean companies (Samsung and LG) dominate the industry, capturing about 40 percent market share last year. Meanwhile, three venerable Japanese brands (Sony, Panasonic, and Sharp) struggled to hold a combined 19 percent market share in 2012 while bleeding red ink all over their ledgers.

Chinese brand HiSense, a virtual unknown in the U.S. market five years ago, was at the International CES with a 110-inch UHDTV. To make matters even more challenging, Chinese brands including Hisense and TCL are becoming a force in the consumer TV market, driving prices down and competing head-to-head in feature sets and styling. Today, it’s not unusual to find small to mid-sized 1080p LCD TVs for about $8 to $10 per diagonal inch, a price that the Japanese cannot sustain and still make any money.


What would get people excited about TV again? The explosion of 3D TV hype back in 2009 fizzled out pretty quickly, as consumers opted to sit on the sidelines while the active vs. passive vs. autostereo battles were contested. Converging computer and TV functions in “smart” TVs didn’t do much to stimulate sales either, as consumers instead shifted their attention to the latest smartphones and tablets to get their video fix.

It was no surprise that last summer’s announcement of UHDTVs—specifically, televisions with at least 3,840 horizontal pixels and 2,160 vertical pixels—was met mostly with skepticism and derision. Many journalists had to ask why Sony, who hasn’t made a dime in the flat screen television business for the past nine years, would waste even more time and financial resources on launching a line of 4K LCD TVs.

LG Electronics, whose subsidiary LG Display makes the 84-inch 4K LCD panel used in Sony and Toshiba UHDTVs as well as JVC’s 4K pro LCD monitor, is pushing aggressively into this space with their own 84-inch product, with 55-inch and 65-inch versions to follow. Samsung announced and showed an 85-inch UHDTV at CES, while Sony and Panasonic proudly unveiled 56-inch 4K TVs using organic lightemitting diodes (OLED).

Among the major Chinese brands, Hisense, TCL, Westinghouse, and Skyworth all showed large 4K TVs, and a few of them had a 110-inch 4K LCD TV out for inspection. (Samsung also showed the 110-inch product, which is manufactured in China at a joint venture factory owned by Samsung, TCL, and the government of Shenzen.) More importantly, the Chinese brands showed smaller 4K TVs, starting at 50 inches and progressing through 55-inch and 65-inch models.


To the average Joe, this next wave of 4K TVs looks too much like another over-hyped media platform. CE brands, looking to revive lagging TV sales, are perceived as pushing advanced technology out there and hoping people, eager to own the next big thing, will rush to open their wallets and hop back on the cutting edge.

Samsung showed UHDTVs of varying sizes at the International CES. Unfortunately, that was the same flawed thinking that hamstrung 3DTV, along with limiting content by locking up exclusive 3D Blu-ray discs in retail partnerships and fighting over incompatible 3D eyewear standards. For that matter, the blue laser optical disc wars from five years ago also held back the successful launch of the Blu-ray format, which now struggles to compete with streaming video and digital downloads.

Here’s the most obvious question: Where will 4K content come from? Sony sells an upconverting Blu-ray player, and expect to see competitive models from Sharp and Samsung this year. But upconverted 4K isn’t the same thing as native 4K. Think of the upconverting DVD players that slowed the growth of Blu-ray; the process of converting 2,073,600 pixels to 8,294,400 pixels is similar except that it involves progressive-scan video only from Blu-ray discs.

Aside from optical disc, there just isn’t any practical way to get 4K content into the home right now. Sony is “loaning” a pre-loaded 4K media player to people who buy its $25,000 84-inch 4K TV. Broadcast and cable TV channels are too small, even with MPEG-4 compression. There is talk of a dedicated 4K satellite TV channel or two), but they won’t come cheaply; the bit rate will be four times that required for 1080p HD video.

One possible solution is offered by RED, whose 4K cameras are widely used in feature film and TV production. Their REDRAY 4K media player uses a 1 TB hard drive to play back content and will sell for just under $1,500. (That’s about what the first-generation HD-DVD and Blu-ray players cost seven years ago.) Toshiba used a REDRAY to play back 4K movies in its booth at CES, and RED’s proprietary wavelet codec can stream 4K at about 20 MBps over Internet connections or from plug-in flash memory.


There’s only one real “catch” for UHDTV, but it’s significant. You need a big screen and a short seating distance to take advantage of all those pixels. Marketing an 84-inch UHDTV is a no-brainer, but many analysts are scratching their heads over the 50-inch and 55-inch TVs shown at CES. One big advantage for 4K TV—it essentially eliminates the solid horizontal black bars created by film-patterned retarders and seen as an artifact on 2K passive 3D TV sets.

So, will UHDTV go the way of 3D, and fade into the background? Not likely and here’s why: First, there are plenty of applications for 4K displays in commercial AV, medical, scientific, geographic, virtual reality, simulation, and post-production markets. For that reason, there will be growing demand for these higher-resolution displays, which will be adapted from consumer television designs. And that will keep the 4K display fabs rolling.

Second, the decline in prices for large LCD TVs continues unabated, and that will make UHDTVs more affordable in short order. While Hisense hasn’t announced official pricing for its line of 4K TVs, Westinghouse stated that their 50-inch 4K LCD TV would be priced at $2,499, with the 55-inch 4K TV pegged at $2,999 and the 65-inch version at $3,999. Those are very reasonable prices, considering that the finished cost of a 50-inch 4K LCD panel with conventional backlights is currently about $8,000, according to NPD DisplaySearch.

There are signs that prices on the first UHDTV models are already dropping. LG’s version is available for about $20,000, which is what a top-grade 50-inch plasma TV would have set you back 15 years ago. Toshiba was aiming for a $12,000 price target for its 55-inch 4K model, but will come in well below that. Given the pricing dynamics of the LCD TV business, we can expect multiple models of 4K TVs to be ticketed at or below $5,000 quickly. And the Chinese 4K TV models I saw at CES all had built-in 3D active shutter capability and “smart” TV functions, including Web browsers and built-in WiFi. In essence, they’re just like the super-thin LCD TVs you see today, but with much higher resolution.

Some perspective is in order. When HDTV started 15 years ago, it was considered a “black art” by many. There was little content, the signals were hard to pick up, and the displays were scarce and expensive. In essence, we heard many of the same arguments back then that we’re hearing about 4K today. Even so, it all got sorted out in less than a decade, and HDTV is basically a commodity now—even on tablets and smartphones.

There’s no reason to expect the same thing won’t happen with 4K, especially with the advent of the HEVC H.265 codec, cheaper and bigger LCD (and eventually OLED) TV screens, higher-speed display and audio interfaces, and a move to solid-state storage and delivery systems for TV shows and movies.

One of the lessons from last month’s International CES was that hardware is cheap, and anyone can manufacture it. All that’s really needed for 4K to take off is more content, and faster pipelines to get it to the home. As we saw with HDTV, if there is market demand, those pipes will be built. Better call the plumber…