America’s 4K revolution is go
Everything’s bigger in the States, and soon that’ll include the number of pixels in TV shows. Meanwhile, we lag behind…
Stateside by Chris Smith
What do we want? 4K TV! When do we want it? In Australia, some time in the next decade. No rush. In the USA – right now! But we can’t have it.
It’s now been quite a while since The Resolution Formerly Known as Ultra HD inherited the “next big thing in telly” tag from 3D. But instead of diving, naked and uninhibited, into the warm tropical ocean of extra pixels, the TV industry has been uncomfortably hobbling along the pebbly beach, tentatively dipping a toe into the brine before running back to the comfort of the seafront pub and another pint of the usual.
The reluctance is understandable. After the 3D debacle, broadcasters and cable companies are less willing to invest heavily in creating and transmitting ultra HD content until the TVs outnumber Betamax VCRs in living rooms. And maybe not even then – when was the last time you watched something in 3D on your 3D telly?
Consumers, meanwhile, aren’t drinking the 4Kool Aid until there’s sport on Sunday and movies at night. It’s the old chicken and egg chestnut, innit?
There is a plus side, though – at least the States is miles ahead of Australia on this one. There’s a slowly improving stable of content being shot in 4K by American content producers – Netflix produces all its original series in the resolution, and Amazon recently vowed to do the same. The new guard is also stepping up in terms of delivering all those extra pixels: Netflix streams House of Cards season 2 in 4K, with Breaking Bad to follow.
This represents the best hope for consumers, and for TV manufacturers desperate to start shifting new sets. Satellite and cable giants DirecTV and Comcast are moving forward, agreeing to stream content through Samsung TVs, but delivering 4K via traditional airwaves is more difficult; you can’t cram 10lbs of visuals into a 5lb bucket.
Direct streaming is seen as a better option because in most cases it doesn’t require a settop box upgrade, but that also has inherent problems. A 15-20Mbps internet connection is essential, and even then, the 40GB movie downloads to Sony’s US$700 4K receivers have to happen overnight. In this way, the future looks a lot like the past – remember loading games on a Commodore 64, or downloading TV series via torrents?
It’s probable the extra bandwidth required will also further fuel the building controversy over net neutrality.
Cost is another issue. Sony has 80 4K films ready for viewing, but is asking US$30 for each. Samsung ships USB drives with its curved UHD televisions, loaded with five movies and three documentaries, just so buyers have something to watch. But Samsung’s curved UHD tellies cost the same as a small car, and both companies are ensuring all this lovely 4K content is restricted to their tellies only.
So the USA’s 4K library is growing. Slowly. But as with HD, it’ll take sports broadcasters like CBS, ESPN, Fox and NBC to take the plunge before the tech dads – traditionally the nation’s chief purchase makers – start rushing to the shops.
In my view, 4K’s floundering is payback for the rush for cash with 3D. That worked for Hollywood, but not for broadcasters or TV makers, who paid dearly for diving in without asking us whether we wanted it. As a result, it’ll probably take years for 4K to gain a mainstream foothold – a damn shame.