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TV's Paradox: No HDR Without 4K

Mari Silbey

If 4K is the premium label consumers know to look for when buying a new TV, HDR is the upgrade that experts say makes the most difference to television viewing. Ultra HD or 4K TV delivers four times the amount of information in a picture as a high-definition display. But that higher resolution is only detectable to viewers watching on a really big screen. In contrast, high dynamic range (HDR) video, with its greater luminance, makes TV look better no matter what size the television set.

So TV manufacturers should be moving away from 4K technology and focusing instead more on HDR, right? Wrong.

HDR TVs aren't going to sell without 4K because the public is already sold on 4K UHD as the next big thing, explains Research Director Paul Gagnon at analyst firm IHS Markit.

TV manufacturers "have a tiered strategy when they introduce products into the market," noted Gagnon recently during a panel at CES. "And once the industry has, or the consumer has, picked up on the fact that 4K is premium, they've discounted 1080p as not premium anymore. So the willingness to pay any kind of marginal premium for what's seen as yesterday's technology goes away quickly."

The irony of the situation is that content producers and distributors want to deliver more HDR video, both because of the quality of the picture, and because it can be streamed at reasonably low bitrates. According to Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN)'s head of digital video playback and delivery, BA Winston, Amazon started offering early HDR content in June 2015. Today the company boasts more than 175 hours of HDR video in its catalog. Customer viewing of Amazon's HDR video in 2016 alone was up over 1,000%.

Amazon's overall catalog of 4K titles, including those without HDR, has also grown substantially. But the growth rate in customers viewing 4K video by itself is slower than the growth rate around content that is streamed in both 4K and HDR. Winston says that compared to the 1,000+% increase in HDR viewing last year, there was a "roughly 300+% increase in customers viewing 4K content."

Want to know more about video and TV market trends? Check out our dedicated video services content channel here on Light Reading.

Traditional pay-TV providers, meanwhile, have their own reasons for 4K ambivalence. UHD TV adds significantly to the bandwidth load on their networks. (See Hurdles Ahead for 4K, HDR.)

"We're not seeing a lot of commitment to live 4K," confessed Michael Davies, SVP at Fox Sports at CES, "though we want to be ready when it comes."

For pay-TV operators, it would be much more convenient to deliver HDR video without 4K resolution, but communicating HDR's value to subscribers now trained on the 4K label would be difficult. In addition, most older TV sets can't support HDR viewing, which means customers would need to upgrade to get the HDR advantage. In other words, they'd need to buy a new 4K TV, furthering the argument for 4K content.

There is one place where HDR content without 4K resolution could and should gain ground. Users on mobile devices with smaller screens can't benefit from UHD video, but they can enjoy HDR content, even over lower-bandwidth connections. That suggests another ironic outcome in the offing.

Tablets and smartphones may soon be a consistent vehicle for HDR viewing, while TV sets either support the premium experience of 4K plus HDR, or remain stubbornly in the world of HD.

— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading

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User Rank: Light Sabre
1/18/2017 | 12:09:44 PM
Re: Nice Article Thank You
Modern video codings are scalable and elastic, so it is really hard to get a video engineer to give a number to digital bandwidth requirements. As a benchmark, Netflix encodes 2160p 4k UHD video at rates around 18 Mbit/s with HEVC. Note that this is about the same rate as the industry was using for MPEG2-encoded 720i HD in the mid-2000s.

As to how the MSOs will handle the greater bandwidth demand, check out Rob Howalds Upskill U. lecture.
User Rank: Light Sabre
1/18/2017 | 11:54:37 AM
Re: VR in 4K
Really? I'd like to see how he arrived at that. That's around 1.6 orders of magnitude greater than HDR-encoded 4k TV. Somehow, it doesn't seem right.

If that really is the minimum, it seems like a huge chicken-and-egg problem for those applications and multi-Gigabit per second access.
User Rank: Light Sabre
1/17/2017 | 7:07:31 PM
The difference between 4K and 8K? Meh. The difference between SDR and HDR? Almost as exciting as the original jump from SD to HD.

The industry didn't care about the confusion in the market with all the different levels of HD compatibility and all the different screen types. But the industry is going to hold off on HDR because they can't figure out how market it? That seems spineless to the point where I suspect there's some other reason for not doing it.

VR will be interesting for games. I remain skeptical it will be useful in any way for the film industry. There will be a couple of exciting developments in the next 5 years, but I'd be surprised if there's a well-developed market outside of games at that point.

--Brian Santo
User Rank: Blogger
1/17/2017 | 3:50:09 PM
Re: Nice Article Thank You
Thanks, John. You must be a cable guy. On 8K, I'm with you. My 1080p set is just fine, and at 42", it wouldn't benefit much from a 4K upgrade. Also, I agree on waiting for 8K. And that's exactly what TV manufacturers are afraid of.

As for whether cable networks can handle 8K, they'll just keep adding capacity as needed. How they do it depends on what happens between now and the time 8K arrives.
User Rank: Blogger
1/17/2017 | 3:46:52 PM
Re: VR in 4K
Thanks, 242ak. I'll be at MWC this year and will look for the scoop on mobile UHD certification. I imagine there will be a fair number of mobile video announcements.
User Rank: Lightning
1/17/2017 | 2:52:50 PM
Nice Article Thank You
Whenever an article on LR interests me it seems to always be by you, Mari!  I'd love to hear from anyone on here if they think Docsis will handle 4K video?  8K? (I know it's a long way off, but I have a very nice 1080p set and if 8K is even whiffed around I'll wait, even if it's 5 years)--I mean I can see the hairs on people's necks on my FiOS broadcasts already!

Will 8K require ANOTHER rebuild if Cable MSO's go Docsis 3.x?

Thanks much
User Rank: Light Beer
1/17/2017 | 1:37:50 PM
Re: VR in 4K
msilbey - great post, and a frustrating issue for many broadcasters. I do think though that we'll see some HD content with HDR in the next few years. Unfortunately, as you point out, it will have to be on UHD TVs. In another development, the UHD Alliance (which certifies UHD Tvs) will be announcing a mobile UHD certification at mobile world congress. Be interesting to see what that will entail.
User Rank: Blogger
1/17/2017 | 1:22:45 PM
VR in 4K
One thing that didn't make it into this story was another stat I heard at CES about the bandwidth requirements of virtual reality when it starts streaming in 4K resolution. CEO John Honker of Magellan Advisors said that a 4K/UHD VR stream will demand 850 megabits per second of bandwdith. And Honker believes we'll have 4K VR within the next 5 years.

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