CES: Ultra high-def TVs come on scene in search of content

Technology for producing content exists, but nets must invest

Television manufacturers have a pretty new picture they hope will entice consumers to replace their current flatscreens.

After making a big push for 3D over the past several years, hardware makers are ready to roll out ultra high-definition as the latest way to reinvent TV viewing, with a number of brands expected to show off the first retail-ready screens at CES this week.

UHD bundles 4K resolution (or 2160p) with 3D capability, delivering a sharper picture that’s close to that of a 35mm film negative.

“When you talk about being able to look into the scene without the haze or the ‘screen door effect’ you get from traditional television, that’s pretty exciting,” said Chris Cookson, president of Sony Pictures Technologies.

But the technology is about the face the same problem 3D TV owners dealt with: a lack of content to watch.

With UHD, Hollywood finds itself once again having to catch up with CES. Whenever the consumer electronics biz introduces new hardware like 3D TVs, studios need to create content that can play on them. That also happened with HDTV.

Yet the technology to capture, produce and deliver UHD content already exists or is coming soon — if networks and production companies can be convinced to invest in it.

Many of the state-of-the-art digital cameras used for episodic TV production are already recording at 4K, or close to it, so the networks are already producing 4K content, and technology for distributing it is on the way, according to Robert Seidel, executive VP of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. And UHD switchers, distribution amps and other production gear are sure to follow.

But with few broadcasters even able to handle 1080p HD, one delivery system for 4K could be multi-layer Blu-ray disks. Another is High Efficiency Video Coding, or HEVC, which is now up for international approval.

“This is roughly four times as efficient as our current MPEG-2,” says Seidel, and since a UHD TV has four times as many pixels as HD, “having a compression system that’s four times as efficient means we should be able to fit 4K into the same bandwidth we have today.”

Some international territories, like Japan, are even considering 8K UHD, for broadcaster NHK, which would be four times as many pixels as 4K (or 4320p). But the company sees 8K more fitting for distribution over satellite channels, not terrestrial broadcasts.

One obstacle for 4K could be a lack of spectrum to offer both HD and UHD channels, Seidel said.

In the short term, over-the-top might provide a distribution channel for 4K, but Seidel worries that any effort to stream network shows would be stymied by the need for additional rights and residuals deals, and by resistance from broadcast affiliates who want exclusivity on their content.

Broadcasters do have an incentive to make the switch.

The transition to HD proved lucrative for the networks because they were able to charge retransmission fees for their HD content, which previously had been free to cable and satellite providers. With those retrans fees in place, there’s no obvious new revenue source for the next tech upgrade other than UHD.

That has already dampened the nets’ enthusiasm for 3D — even the execs who like 3D content don’t want to pay for a 3D upgrade — and led to demands that consumer electronics companies step up to sponsor and finance 3D programming. The CE companies are almost sure to find similar resistance to 4K UHD.

The transition to UHD production is already under way, however.

Fox has already incorporated a 4K camera into sports production as “Super Zoom” — they use the extra pixels to zoom in on frames while staying at 720p HD for broadcast. Fox and CBS are both reported to be evaluating 4K gear, as well.

Cookson said thanks to Moore’s law and the plummeting costs of electronics, 4K cameras “aren’t the biggest cost in the world” and the costs of upgrading to 4K are manageable if amortized over many productions and many years. Seidel observes that the TV biz is already used to making money off the “long tail” of reruns and syndication, so they’re used to future-proofing their content.

Cookson is also intrigued by a demo of full 4K 3D projected on a screen at a lab in Japan.

“I can tell you, you have to hold onto your chair,” he said of the 4K image designed for each eye. “It’s unbelievable. There’s a lot to look forward to.”