CES 2013 Wrap: 4K TVs Have Arrived—Now Where’s the Content?

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LG’s 84-inch “Ultra-High Definition” flat-panel 4K LED television quadruples the level of detail seen on current HDTVs; $20,000, lg.com.

Ultra HD displays dazzled at the consumer electronics show, but stakeholders are looking for ways to deliver 4K content to the home.

The expansive 2013 International CES that wrapped Friday in Las Vegas saw continued developments in smartphones and tablets, but 4K was the biggest buzz word among many of the attendees from the Hollywood community.

Stunning imagery generated from "Ultra HD" displays ranging from 55-inch to 110-inches dazzled CES attendees and are on the way to retail, but the steep price of the displays coupled with the challenges of delivering 4K to the home has numerous stakeholders betting that their adoption will be limited, at least for the foreseeable future.

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The first 4K TVs—among them 84-inch displays from Sony and LG priced between $20,00-$25,000—are out of reach for many consumers, though the Consumer Electronics Association projects that the average wholesale cost of a 4K TV will drop  from $7,000 in 2013 to $2,800 in 2014 and will continue to fall in 2015.

The production and delivery of a steady flow of 4K content—offering four times the amount of picture information that is found in today’s HD content—also needs to be addressed.

As a starting point, today Ultra HD TVs from certain set makers including Samsung, Sony and Toshiba include some sort of upscaling technology, allowing consumers to watch today’s HD in 4K whether it originates from anything including broadcast TV, streaming, downloads or Blu-ray. These developments alone might contribute to 4K TV sales.

But getting native 4K to the home is more technically challenging.

At CES, Sony previewed a media player for 4K content; the company plans to reveal details in the spring.

It could support, for example, content shot with 4K cameras, including upcoming features such as Sony’s After Earth, Sony/TriStar’s Elysium and Universal’s Oblivion. Other potential content includes productions that were mastered in 4K during postproduction, such as Skyfall or The Amazing Spider-Man.

Any content archived on film already offers high resolution, so 4K delivery also opens the door for classic films. Sony Pictures for instance has already restored and remastered in 4K a list of titles including Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai.

While consumers rely on upscaling, Sony is also planning for a “Mastered in 4K” Blu-ray program offering library and new titles sourced from 4K masters and presented at 1080p. “When upscaled via the Sony 4K Ultra HD TVs, these discs serve as an ideal way for consumers to experience near-4K picture quality,” Sony stated.

Numerous stakeholders agree that due to the bandwidth required to move 4K content, packaged media makes the most sense as a delivery format, at least for the time being. With that strategy in mind, the Blu-Ray Disc Association recently formed a task force that will study the technical requirements and market opportunity of bringing 4K support to the Blu-ray format.

Other organizations have shown interest in the potential of 4K and have started limited amounts of experimentation in other areas. Last week, satellite operator Eutelsat Communications launched a demonstration 4K channel for Europe. An experimental Ultra HD channel is also being planned in Korea.

BSkyB in the UK, Sky Deutschland in Germany, Japan’s Sky Perfect Jsat, and Brazil’s TV Globo have all started to explore the potential of 4K, which would include coverage of events such as sports. One insider told The Hollywood Reporter that a team from TV Globo was examining 4K at CES with an eye toward offering the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympics (both of which will be held in Brazil) in the format.

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Beyond 4K, at CES Sharp demonstrated its prototype 85-inch 8K TV with a staggering 16 times the resolution of today’s HD. Last year, Japanese broadcaster NHK—which plans to skip 4K and go straight to 8K with its developing “Super Hi-Vision” system—teamed with the BBC to test 8K during the London Olympics. Super Hi-Vision trials are expected to begin in Japan no later than 2020.

There is currently a lot of attention being placed on studying the technical feasibility of Ultra HD delivery to the home, but stakeholders are examining all necessary parts of the equation that must come together, including standards and importantly a workable business model—and this is reflected in the comments of Bryan Burns, vp of strategic business planning and development at ESPN.

“By the time we get [to 4K] we will be on to 8K or whatever,” Burns warned during a panel discussion at CES. “I don’t want to make the capital investment [in 4K]. There might be a gradual evolution. … but I don't see us heading to 4K production or an ESPN 4K channel.”