Who Wins TV's 4K Race?

Over-The-Top Sprints Out to Early Lead in Nascent Ultra HD Market

Ultra HD could be the next big thing in video.

Also known as 4K (a reference to the number of pixels that run across the screen), Ultra HD scrunches in four times as much information as in today’s best HDTV images, offering a broad palette of eye-popping, brilliant colors and a potential market driver TV makers hope will spark a buying frenzy they didn’t get with 3D TV.

Seeing is believing. Pixel-packed Ultra HD delivers a quantum leap in video clarity and cleanliness, showering the viewer with images that can reveal the individual blades of grass on a gridiron, grains of sand being windswept across a beach or the hairs standing upon the back of a bumblebee.

But this visual wonder comes at a price — and with a set of challenges at almost every point along the distribution chain. Sets, which must be large for consumers to truly appreciate the beauty of 4K, are expensive by definition. Ultra HD is also vexed with the kind of chicken-and-egg conundrum that hindered the early days of HD: Consumers won’t want to buy those pricey sets unless there’s content available to fill the giant screens, but content providers and studios won’t invest heavily in 4K until there’s a large consumer base.

Cable operators face a similar dilemma. They don’t want to get caught fl at-footed when the 4K market pops, but will find it difficult to justify the extra bandwidth and new software and hardware required to support Ultra HD when only a sliver of their customer base can even enjoy it.

There is also a wild card that wasn’t in the mix during the early days of HDTV — over-the-top video services. Emerging broadband-delivered streaming and download services present the kind of competitive jab that could prompt traditional providers to debut products well before 4K becomes a mainstream phenomenon.

For 4K to take off , it will require a well-rounded ecosystem of back-end technologies, affordable consumer products and high-quality content. Based on recent developments, those pieces are starting to fall into place.


Recent forecasts show that Ultra HD won’t reach wide scale adoption for years. NPD DisplaySearch predicts that more than 500,000 4K TVs will ship worldwide this year, and 7 million units will ship by 2016.

The Consumer Electronics Association expects just 20,000 to 25,000 4K TVs to be shipped in the U.S. this year. Shipments aren’t expected to top the 1 million mark on an annual basis until the latter part or 2015 or early 2016, according to Shawn DuBravac, the CEA’s chief economist and senior director of research.

IHS iSuppli has a more ambitious view, predicting that 200,000 Ultra HD Liquid Crystal Display TVs will ship in the U.S. this year, and 4.6 million in 2018. But that’s still a drop in the bucket, as iHS iSuppli predicts Ultra HD shipments will comprise just 1% of the LCD TV market in 2013, 3% in 2014 and 5% in 2015.

Ultra HD sets will trail the overall TV market for years, but consumer adoption trends involving larger screen sizes could bode well for 4K. The CEA originally predicted that 34% of TVs would be more than 50 inches wide by 2016; that number has already reached 29% this year. That trend, DuBravac said, “will help the Ultra HD story.”

Falling prices will help the rollout of 4K TVs, too. The average 4K set costs roughly four times the average price of all LCD TVs now sold in the U.S., but will dip to a cost multiple of 2.6 by 2018, according iHS iSuppli. In five years, the firm expects the shipping price on those products to fall to less than $1,200, versus $3,128 today.

Despite these positive trends, some industry observers aren’t convinced that 4K’s success is assured. “Even the most optimistic person would be hard-pressed to tell you there would be a large population of TVs supporting Ultra HD in three years,” Colin Dixon, chief analyst and co-founder of nScreenMedia, said. “We’re probably five years away at least, if it’s going to happen.”

Over-the-top services are already trying to make it happen, jumping in ahead of cable operators and other traditional pay TV providers. To spur sales of its new pricey sets, Sony is taking on the role of 4K content aggregator with the recent launch of Video Unlimited 4K, a video-download service with about 70 Ultra HD titles.

Sony’s closed service requires a proprietary, $700 4K media player that is only compatible with Sony-made 4K sets and comes pre-loaded with 10 movies and a collection of 4K video shorts. To kick things off , the consumer-electronics giant is promoting several 4K TV/media-player bundles, including a 65-inch set that comes with one year of Netflix and Hulu Plus for almost $6,000.

A smaller firm called ODEMAX launched a private beta of its 4K-download service on July 11, and expects a commercial rollout later this year. Early on, ODEMAX is concentrating on delivering independent films via broadband to high-capacity Redray Players made by Red Digital Cinema, which currently sell for about $1,750 each.

The Sony/Netflix 4K bundle also foreshadows Netflix’s future thinking. Netflix chief product officer Neil Hunt told tech-news website The Verge earlier this year to expect the company to offer a 4K library “within a year or two.” Netflix has not offered a more specific launch timeframe, but did confirm that 4K will factor into its future content strategy. “We think that streaming is the way people will get access to 4K and we plan to be among the very first to offer 4K content consumers,” spokesman Joris Evers said, noting that Hunt’s “comments still stand.”

Last week, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings told The Future TV Conference in Copenhagen that he expects 4K-capable tablets and PCs to catch on before 4K-TVs, and that consumers will need a 15 Mbps broadband connection to stream 4K video.

The emergence of OTT 4K could stress broadband networks and cause cable operators to accelerate the deployment of usage-based Internet policies. Sony confirmed that each 4K movie title will be 45 gigabytes to 60 GB in size.

At that size, it would not take long for typical broadband users to blow through new cap-based policies already in place or being tested by Comcast, Mediacom Communications and Suddenlink Communications, which are charging $10 for additional blocks of 50 GB when broadband customers exceed their monthly consumption thresholds.

But cable operators are busy plotting how to deliver 4K on their own. At the Cable Show in June, Comcast demonstrated a 4K video stream over IP on its DOCSIS 3.0 network at 50 Megabits per second, and another ondemand stream shipped over its traditional QAM-based video network. Comcast hasn’t announced any product plans, but “[if] the 4K market develops, we’re ready for it,” Comcast Cable fellow of premises technologies Mark Francisco said at the time.

CableLabs, the industry’s research-and-development organization, has built a 4K lab and purchased a Red Epic camera to shoot video that can be tested. One goal is to create 4K test loops to check how a compressed 4K signal looks when sent via traditional QAM/MPEG transport or over IP, CableLabs president and CEO Phil McKinney explained in a recent interview.

While there’s not expected to be much in the way of live, linear 4K video offered for a while, Hollywood studios have been building up a large archive by scanning movies in 4K, meaning operators and OTT providers should eventually have a decent library of on-demand 4K to tap into. “There’s a fair amount of 4K content that’s ready to be prepared to be distributed,” McKinney said.

Programmers are dipping their toes into the 4K pool before plunging head-long into the category.

Discovery Networks took an early lead when HDTV was in its infancy and took another early stab at 3D with 3net, its partnership with Sony and Imax. Discovery hasn’t placed a big bet on 4K yet, but likes its prospects.

“The reality is we’re always looking around the corner to see what that new technology is, and 4K looks very, very promising,” Glenn Oakley, Discovery’s executive vice president of media technology, production and operations, said.

But before Discovery would pull the trigger on a 4K linear offering, the production equipment, distribution network and in-home technology would need to align, he said. The programmer is already testing 4K cameras and post-production gear, Oakley noted.

3net has already taken 4K beyond the experimentation phase, believing there’s enough of an appetite for 4K to justify that strategy. Its first 4K project is Space: Unraveling the Universe, a three-part series. Another 20 hours of 4K content is in various stages of production, including a title in the works called Flight 4K, according to 3net president and CEO Tom Cosgrove.


3net has aligned its production strategy around what it calls “Total D,” meaning it shoots everything in 3D/4K. “By shooting in this Total D format, we’re able to capitalize on all the various markets that are out there for advanced imaging,” Cosgrove said, noting that

3net is talking to “major distributors” about 4K, including TV makers and over-the- top video service providers. 3net’s current slate of U.S. distribution partners include Comcast, Service Electric Cablevision, Google Fiber, Netflix and DirecTV, which has already filed several 4K-related trademark applications, including “4KN,” “4KNetwork” and “4KNET.”

“Everyone has a slightly different timeline [for 4K],” Cosgrove said. “Some are looking right now to buy and put things up. Others are further down the road. But they’re all interested in figuring out what’s out there, what the market is, and what the opportunities are.”

For cable, the coming 4K bandwidth issue will be solved in part by video encoders, set-tops and other gear along the value chain that use H.265/High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), a compression scheme that promises to be 50% more efficient than H.264/MPEG-4.

That groundwork is already being paved, as most vendors on both sides have either launched or are getting ready to introduce products that bake in HEVC.

“We’ve supported 4K resolutions in H.264 for several releases now,” with HEVC now coming on board via software upgrades, said Sam Blackman, CEO of Elemental Technologies, a video-gear vendor that counts Comcast among its customers. The company showed off full frame rate HEVC encoding at last week’s IBC Conference in Amsterdam.

Broadcom also made 4K strides last week, announcing a new family of UltraHD-capable chips for satellite, cable, and IP-only set-top boxes, following up on the debut of its first 4K-capable gateway chip unveiled in January.

“HEVC … makes it feasible for cable, satellite and IPTV operators to deliver this content to the consumer,” Joseph Del Rio, associate product line director for Broadcom’s Communications Group, said. “HEVC helps level the playing field.”

HEVC is just one piece to the 4K puzzle. The format took another technical leap forward earlier this month when the HDMI Forum released the 2.0 version of the HDMI [High Definition Multimedia Interface], the standard that governs the high-speed cables that feed video and audio to TVs.

HDMI 2.0 is important to 4K because it supports up to 60 frames per second — what’s required for fastaction sports and other live TV content delivered in the 4K format. The current version, HDMI 1.4, maxes out at 30 frames per second, a speed considered good enough for 4K movies.


Ultra HD, TV’s next big thing, isn’t yet ready for primetime — but moves by over-the-top video providers may speed up its emergence.