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NAB Preview: Who Is Betting on Ultra HD?

As broadcasters gather in Las Vegas, the big question will be whether consumers are ready to pay for the future of content-delivery technology.

Issue 13 BKLOT NAB Illustration - H 2014
Sam Brewster

This story first appeared in the April 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When the National Association of Broadcasters Show gets underway April 5 in Las Vegas, perhaps the most intense debate will be over the next generation of display formats -- so-called Ultra High Definition -- and in which of the emerging technologies broadcasters, manufacturers, studios and consumers should invest their dollars.

Not unlike the transition to HD in the late 1990s, a move to Ultra HD, an umbrella term that includes several different types of formats from higher resolution to brightness, won't come easily or cheaply.

Leading consumer electronics makers already have placed their bets by starting to roll out Ultra HD TVs, or "4K" TVs, which promise picture resolution four times that of HD. A new report from market research firm Park Associates projects that in 10 to 12 years, at least 80 percent of U.S. households will have 4K TVs. Even so, skeptics -- including technology leaders in Hollywood and the broadcast television world -- worry that 4K isn't a significant enough leap to justify the cost to both consumers and content providers. Some sets can cost up to $40,000, and distribution of 4K imagery presents a complex and expensive set of challenges.

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"There's got to be a compelling enough reason to move the whole consumer marketplace, distribution chain and postproduction chain completely over to 4K," says Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers standards director Howard Lukk, who also serves as vp production technology at Walt Disney Studios. "And that's why I think most people are saying we need more than more pixels."

The loudest buzz in Hollywood surrounds high dynamic range (HDR) imagery, which expands the range between the darkest and brightest images a TV can produce. HDR proponents contend it is a more noticeable upgrade for less cost than 4K. Groups such as SMPTE and MovieLabs (a nonprofit research and development venture started by the six major studios) have begun work on HDR standards, though the technology still is in early development.

Then there's 8K, which produces a picture with resolution a whopping 16 times greater than HD, and glasses-free 3DTV, which proponents hope will restart the home 3D market. There's also a sizable group of engineers from both manufacturers and Hollywood who argue the best option is a combination of upgrades, including HDR, high frame rates and a wider range of colors.

Though there are hurdles involved in handling even four times as much data, at NAB, which is expected to draw 95,000 delegates and 1,600 exhibitors, many major manufacturers will showcase 4K production and post technology, including Canon, Panasonic and Sony. Many of them see 4K production as inevitable.

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Sony Electronics Professional president Alec Shapiro says content is the key to introducing a new TV format, and he's optimistic about 4K. Sony already produces some 4K content, including The Blacklist. This summer, Sony will team with FIFA to offer the World Cup final in 4K (distribution will vary by country and rights). Initially, Park Associates says, most consumers will view 4K content delivered via the Internet, "with companies like Netflix, Comcast and Amazon already working on 4K-based" content (broadband providers can expect to see traffic demands grow "dramatically").

As for HDR, Dolby and Technicolor are among the early proponents that will show this technology at NAB. Rob Marshall's best picture winner Chicago (2002) recently was remastered in a new HDR format called Dolby Vision, and sources confirm that multiple studios are considering completing new movies in Dolby Vision this year.

Japan is going in yet another direction, aiming to begin testing 8K broadcasting by the 2016 Rio Olympics. At NAB, NHK plans to demonstrate the potential of this Ultra HD format with wireless transmission of 8K images over today's standard TV channel.

Still, are these stakeholders missing the bigger picture? Unlike the 1990s, when HD was mandated by the FCC, the Ultra HD debate is occurring at a time when content is available on a wide selection of screens, including mobile devices, which cannot support any of the new formats and aren't likely to anytime soon.

"People are trading immediacy over definition," says Zeebox co-founder and CTO Anthony Rose, the former BBC exec widely credited with the design of the BBC iPlayer. He believes "4K is as inevitable as HD" but -- at least for now -- "I think people will choose the show that's available when and where they want it over the one that is available in super-duper quality that needs a whole chain of new devices to watch."

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3 More Hot Topics:

Net Neutrality: The NAB hasn't taken a position on this issue but will host a debate about the FCC's proposed Open Internet rules.

Spectrum Rights: Expect plenty of discussion about the government's 2015 voluntary spectrum auctions, which will include broadcast spectrum.

Production: The way content is produced in the digital age continues to change. Speakers include Gravity's Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.

Go to THR.com/behindthescreen for breaking NAB news.