4K UHD for the Home: Visuals sizzle, but where’s the steak?

Features

It’s no secret that the home is becoming more attractive and comfortable as an entertainment center, and a lot of buzz about new 4K UHD (Ultra High Definition) panel viewing and enhanced audio (high-res and the like pumped through sound bars or wireless speakers, etc.) is driving this trend. But even with so many more pixels available to get a sharper picture (up to 3840 x 2160 from 1280 x 720 pixels or thereabouts), you don’t need the latest and greatest iteration of a TV to see that, like the storied emperor and his new “clothes,”there’s only a trickle of 4K content for all the cheering masses in the industry and the many consumers (and growing) who have already purchased 4K UHD sets.

Yes, the UHD picture quality is terrific, as demonstrated on the new sets that offer samples of UHD demo footage—usually nature footage, gorgeous outdoor vistas or bites of event features of the Exodus: Gods and Kings variety. And the visuals are even more spectacular when enhanced by an OLED monitor (LG already has these store-ready) and HDR (high dynamic range) capability (more on this below). And because these new panels are back-compatible, all the HD and standard programming currently available plays on the sets and (look very, very closely) shows a marginal improvement in UHD.

So the question thatlooms for consumers and those in the entertainment industry is: When might enough meaningful 4K UHD entertainment content arrive to not just boost sales but get these panels into the mainstream where HD (after its own slow start) now reigns?

Unlike that emperor left naked, the 4K content will be coming and some is already here, thanks to UHD sets that also offer media players and services for streaming media (their alternative to Smart TV). The media players, proprietary to manufacturers like Sony or China’s Seiki, provide 4K programming from the likes of Netflix, YouTube, Vudu, Toon Goggles, or their own libraries. Of course, access to this small treasure chest of initial 4K content requires hundreds of dollars beyond the panel prices, a few flirting below the $1,000 mark but most costing in the thousands.

So where’s the 4K content that will change the industry and consumer lives? Best not to ask the major trade groups promoting these panels (e.g., the UHD Alliance or the huge CEA aka the Consumer Electronics Association) because, be the question too tough, scary or cheeky, no answers or even guesstimates emerge. This issue of UHD content (be it the delay or flat-out paucity) really is hush-hush in certain big corners, where it’s an embarrassment. Or maybe reticence to talk “content”is the result of fear that consumers will retreat. (They aren’t and are expected to come out strong this holiday season when a big chunk of UHD content is expected to arrive.)

A good place to go to unravel that elusive truffle-like 4K UHD content conundrum seemed to be New York’s recent annual CE Week event, including its “Your Next TV Conference,”which ran June 23-25. The Conference, with its focus on 4K UHD, overflowed with tech talk about the beauty and workings of the new panels and the audio enhancements available for the inadequate sound that characterizes both the older HD devices and even these latest panels.

The talks and demos—rich in specs, stats, charts and endless tech talk—delivered plenty of content with barely a mention of UHD content, what can be watched now, what will be out there and when. Only London-based senior market analyst Jack Wetherill, a home-electronics expert with Futuresource Consulting, uttered the industry’s seven-letter word, telling Conference attendees that “content has a lot of catching up to do.”This tease prompted this reporter to catch up with him post-Conference via e-mail in London.

Asked to comment on the content issue, Wetherill wrote that while ownership of UHD sets is growing rapidly, “content is and will be much slower to follow…From the movie production side, Hollywood is of course the major generator of content. Around 80 movies have been shot in 4K and another 100 films and TV shows are planned, even if delivery in 4K is currently limited.”

What’s slowing things down, he said, is the studios’need to ensure their 4K content is future-proof, meaning that while the films can now be shown in digital cinemas in 4K, of course, it’s particularly important that they are ready for post-cinema revenue streams like home viewing.

He expects sports to be a “major driver”for content, as “several major soccer leagues will have a selection of games available in 4K this year,although this poses major technical challenges for broadcasters.”

TV dramas and documentaries, he believes, will have a much slower rollout. Also, “due to upgrade fatigue [the transition for going widescreen to HD and 3D], the vast majority of production companies are still buying HD cameras rather than 4K, so the capability to produce the content will not be there in many cases for a long time.”

On the bright side, “Netflix–so often quoted as a pioneer in 4K/UHD content–is to produce eleven 4K TV shows during 2015/16. Amazon Prime is also pressing ahead with 4K productions.”And word from the BBC, which also was an early entry into the HD world, is, he wrote, that some of their first 4K productions will be natural-history shows.”Also, there are some pay-TV 4K content partnerships involving Paramount, Comcast with NBC, and USA and Nat Geo who are also jumping in.

Wetherill concludes that “work is being done in the content industry, but it is likely that there will be less content available in the early years than there was in the first years of HD.”In addition to that “upgrade fatigue,”he also cites the fact that “the shift from 2K to 4K is less dramatic visually than SD [Standard Definition] to HD. As a result, the business models are being closely scrutinized by the entire chain, from production to broadcast.”

But how might this continuing delay impact sales? Says Wetherill, “Content will always drive sales of the relevant hardware, but 4K sets are hot sellers right now and will likely continue to be so, even if consumers in the short to mid-term have to rely upon a few streamed series from Netflix, some on-demand sports and 4K movies on Blu-ray and some pay-TV operators. The marketers will stress the upscaling capabilities of their sets [meaning the lower pixel content will look better on the new panels until the real thing comes along] in order to keep many consumers from being too concerned about lack of native 4K content.”

Besides Wetherill, other speakers at the Conference dug deep into the tech and improved picture aspects of 4K UHD, even beyond the advantage of more pixels. There’s HDR (the high dynamic range providing higher contrast and luminance, even greater depth and, depending on what is captured, maybe a hint of 3D), more saturated colors (that wider menu of colors known as the wider color gamut), and higher frame rates.

As a concession for non-tech, non-high-end dummies, much of what was shown off on 4K UHD screens could be summed up as greater definition; better, richer and more authentic color quality; brighter, even dazzling images. Much of this is familiar to moviegoers at premium venues. The irony is that cameras for years have been capturing 4K, but delivery capabilities, no matter the screen, continue to lag behind.

Other issues discussed included panels with the best viewing angles and those best seen up close (most!). Sony, not surprisingly, bragged about its better sound capabilities, and LG was rapturous (and justifiably) about its OLED (not LCD!) screens; it is the manufacturer with these screens closest to market (but get out the wallet). And Samsung was big on the HDR amenities for its new panels.

While conversation at the CE Show and Conference was not about content, others, like Wetherill, did talk after the event. Sony seemed a good bet for some insight into 4K UHD, as the company manufactures across the 4K UHD frontier: the cameras that capture, the panels and accessories for viewing, and studios for the content.

Reached in San Diego, Nick Colsey, the VP for Sony Electronics business development, said that Sony really got on the case for content in 2013 and continues to offer to 4K UHD owners a video service—the Video Unlimited 4K download service, the world’s first, launched in September 2013. It offers over 300 films and TV programs (content from Sony and some indie video producers) through the Sony Media Player (about $500 additionally). The player, he continued, is intent on providing the “ultimate picture and surround sound quality,”and currently delivers hit TV shows like “Breaking Bad,” “Better Call Saul”and “The Blacklist,”as well as movies including Chappie, Paul Blart 2 and The Wedding Ringer. The player also supports streaming services (also on Smart TVs) like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Ultraflix, Toon Goggles, and YouTube.

The pundits agree that more 4K content like this is becoming available as more studios make more 4K programming available and, for next year, Colsey predicts there will be a live 4K TV channel. “We hear in the industry that this will happen. No specifics yet, but it may be one of the major cable TV channels.”

Explaining his optimism regarding 4K content penetration (besides being on the Sony side of things), Colsey uses as a reference point what happened with HDTV and the explosive growth that HD content ignited. (“The big trigger was cable.”) And for the adoption of the new panels, “the holiday season will be big! The 4K UHD panels have already sold this year and the jump comes this holiday season!”

His optimism and that of others are further boosted by 4K content that will come through the Blu-ray pipeline “probably beginning this holiday. The standards for 4K in Blu-ray have just been set and Sony and other manufacturers are already at work.”He could not comment on what exactly Sony is doing.

But the Blu-ray Disc Association this May, in an announcement that fomented excitement in the industry, issued a release regarding the work done and the specs and new logo that will identify the Ultra HD Blu-ray products, underscoring “the significant storage capacity and high data-transfer rates [that] will enable the delivery of an unparalleled, consistent and repeatable UHD experience…In addition to delivering content in up to 3840 x 2160 resolution, the Ultra HD Blu-ray format enables delivery of a significantly expanded color range and allows for the delivery of high dynamic range (HDR) and high-frame-rate content.”Licensing is expected to begin right now, so expectations are high for this new 4K UHD content to begin flowing by the holidays.

Let’s say that even in this foggy climate of mixed forecasts for 4K UHD content and its delayed takeoff, you’re a consumer buckling up to have a tour of 4K UHD panels in showrooms. There might be challenge and confusion there amongst a lot of pretty and pretty similar screens all in a row. Don’t count on watching live television (cable, broadcast or satellite), as retail showrooms (like the panel manufacturers) prefer to show off their own UHD programming lineup pulled from hard drives, Blu-rays, etc. Maybe delay your flight until closer to the holidays, when the views, amenities and prices may be more inviting. Even content may be there.

But for those making an early stop, a savvy salesman will be helpful (if not hype-ful). A good choice is Martin Mbogho, TV department sales manager at New York-headquartered giant B&H, the world’s biggest electronics retailer (in-house, catalog, and on the Web), with more volume than Amazon in this category, they say. Mbogho showed off a lot of pretty pictures on a multitude of models and offered: “For the time being, the availability of content will only be Blu-ray and streaming [as cable and broadcast try to catch up]. Narrow bandwidth is the problem, so we’re really in the middle of the future of TV.” He too predicts a “big Christmas when Blu-ray discs will be available.”

If the content doesn’t yet abound, confusion does, beginning with what the new panels are called. We have 4K UHD, UHD, 4K flat-screen TVs, just 4K, and even 4K UHD Connected (4K Ultra HD Connected TV), which is a panel that can get UHD content when connected to the Internet and the viewer subscribes to a service offering UHD content. Name your panel!

There are many brands and many models. In addition to the big guys (LG, Sony, Samsung and the like), there are a swarm of budget lines here and soon to come in 4K UHD. Besides Vizio and others, there will be China’s smart-looking Seiki line.

When shopping for a new panel, don’t forget to remember the attributes that identify the picture quality you’re after: black quality, perceived contrast, color accuracy, off-axis performance (viewing from the sides), screen uniformity, motion clarity, and how “day mode”(usually that daytime living room light) might affect the image.

Figuring all this out plus pondering how 4K UHD development will impact entertainment consumption is a bit of a trip down a rabbit hole into a thick jungle of technical land mines and monitors. At least it’s pretty scenery.

And why are all the great movies that drive entertainment (and drove HD) getting late into the act? Explains L.A.-based tech and 4K guru and expert Joe Kane, who has long consulted to the American Society of Cinematographers and was another Conference speaker, “Hollywood got caught with their collective pants down when UHD sets first hit the market in early 2013.” 

As the tale goes, that storied naked emperor never got the wardrobe that royalty deserved. But, at least in the about-to-burst 4K UHD realm, all signs point to the new panels eventually getting their “wardrobe”of content, although patience will be required.

In a brief chat with FJI after the Conference, Tom Campbell, whose L.A.-area Video & Audio Center, with three superstores, is California’s largest independent consumer-electronic retailer, trumpeted that 4K UHD display and audio enhancements are happening fast and furious, then added without missing a beat: “But look how theatres too are improving!” There’s a lesson in there somewhere.