UHDTV: A bridge too far?

Without a doubt, the top theme at this year’s NAB show was 4K. There were 4K cameras, video routers, recorders, multiviewers, fiber, projectors, slo-mo systems, 4K cine lenses and, of course, 4K editing, grading and production systems. Wow, with all that stuff available, why would anyone buy yesterday’s 3G and HD equipment?

Maybe because hype from the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) doesn’t quite glaze the eyes of video professionals at the NAB Show. Sure, vendors at NAB are only too willing to meet perceived demand, lest they get caught behind the technology curve. They want to show their technology capability. But, are the demos real?

Let’s look a bit closer at the 4K, or UHDTV, phenomenon. Launched at this year’s CES show, it quickly became the dominant theme. Television-set vendors were eager to demonstrate their latest iterations of UHDTV. About the only thing these new, larger TV sets don’t claim to do is to grow hair on bald guys and magically reduce a person’s weight.

The basic theme is that a UHDTV displays 4X the resolution of a standard HD TV set. At CES, many displays were as large as 84in, with one vendor highlighting a 152in plasma display. Why is there such a rush to UHDTV? It is because bigger sets equal higher profits.

So, is the U.S. marketplace rapidly moving to UHDTV? No, and outside China, penetration may be painfully slow.

According to the publication DIGITIMES, the penetration rate of UHDTV (3840 x 2160) TV-panel shipments may reach 20 percent in 2013, but only because of high demand from China-based TV manufacturers making sets for domestic consumption. China-based TV vendors have reportedly been placing orders for UHDTV panels from manufacturers (such as Innolux Corporation) in sizes ranging from 39in to 85in. Another panel maker, AU Optronics, is said to have received orders from vendors for UHDTV panels sized 55in and 65in.

There are two things to keep in mind about these reports. First, these Chinese TV-set makers are basing their orders not on U.S. sales, but Chinese consumption. Second, the UHDTV panels cost about twice as much to manufacture as do standard HD displays.

And, here’s just a final dose of reality before you drop money for a full 4K plant. It is true that HD is the standard technology for American viewers. More than 75 percent of U.S households now own an HDTV set. According to Nielsen, that’s up 14 percent from last year, and the research firm says nearly 40 percent of those homes have multiple HD sets. Do you think those set owners will be eager to replace their “young” TV sets, even for 4K resolution?

The adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink,” echoes with 4K. Despite virtually all OTA stations transmitting some HD, and 61 percent of all prime viewing is done on an HD set, that doesn’t mean the viewer is getting HDTV imagery. According to Nielsen, only 29 percent of English-language broadcast prime viewing and 25 percent of cable prime viewing was in “true HD.” If you’re watching shows like “Dukes of Hazzard,” they probably are not HD.

All of these issues mean that we still have a gap between HD potential and true HD viewing, and that may be a wide river for consumers to bridge. If so, does that, for now, make UHDTV a “bridge too far”?

Brad Dick, editorial director