For more than 60 years, the television business has been a ravenous wolf pursuing the feature film business and its audience. The movie biz started as fat and easy prey. But to put some distance between itself and TV, it adopted a parade of innovations — 3D, widescreen, color, Sensurround, Dolby sound, 3D again, Imax and more — always hoping that a better picture and sound would coax people off their couches. But the living room screen matched the movies innovation for innovation and continued to shear off chunks of the movie audience.

Now, the TV business finds itself the hunted. Its own audience is being torn away by fast and nimble new predators: mobile devices and Web video. The popularity of mobile has transformed the entertainment landscape as quickly and profoundly as TV did in the 1940s and ’50s, and the TV industry is feeling the pressure to quicken its pace of innovation, just as the movies did, lest its networks, affiliates and cablers go the way of single-screen neighborhood movie theaters.

So less than five years since the digital transition in the U.S., which abandoned the standard definition format that had stood for 50 years in favor of HDTV, TV manufacturers are back with another upgrade: “Ultra High-Definition.” As UHD sets begin to appear in retail stores at less-than-astronomical prices, the latest models also will be a featured attraction at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show, Jan. 7-10. Sony Electronics in particular plans to make the technology a focal point of its presentation, perhaps the first of many announcements out of Las Vegas aiming to jumpstart the UHD category. Panasonic, LG, Samsung, Toshiba and Sharp won’t be far behind.

But as industry momentum builds, some skeptics warn that in the haste to ignite TV sales and protect the business as we know it, UHD is being served to the masses without being fully baked.

“We’re being led by the consumer electronics industry to deliver too little, too fast,” warned Chris Johns, chief engineer of broadcast strategy at BSkyB, at a recent technical symposium. “If we deliver something that is ‘Ultra HD lite,’ if you want to call it that, will the consumers see enough of a difference to make them want to buy it? We’re literally walking on the edge of a cliff, trying to identify what standards are going to be in place and when to deliver this content to consumers.”

There are actually two Ultra High-Definition standards in the works, 4K and 8K. The 4K format quadruples the number of pixels on the screen, from 1920×1080 for full-HD to 3840×2160. That’s the format coming to retail now.

In what may be a sign of weak demand, UHD televisions have been marked down considerably from earlier this year, bottoming out at about $3,000 across top brands for the holiday season. That’s still pricey, but it’s a far cry from the $85,000 Sony’s first Ultra HD set commanded in 2012.

With the economy still sputtering in most of the developed world, and the tech underpinnings of UHD still under construction, why press ahead with the new standard at all?

Crucially, consumer electronics companies need something to get consumers excited about, and buying new TVs again. Research firm IHS projects that global TV sales will be down 5% in 2013 vs. the previous year, which in turn was down 7% from 2011. Low demand has forced prices down, so the HD TV market has turned into a cutthroat, low-margin business, where all the top brands offer great quality and must compete mostly on price. UHD gives them a new premium product to sell.

“We saw this in the transition from SD to HD: Resolution is something that consumers see with their eyes; they can believe it,” said Jim Sanduski, VP of strategic product marketing at Sharp. “With content and with affordability, I think consumers respond well to increases in resolution.”

There are some ambitious UHD sales projections to back up Sanduski’s confidence. Research firm IDC sees 2.2 million units being shipped this year. While that represents only 1% of total shipments, the number could reach 10 million by 2017. The Consumer Electronics Assn. projects 450,000 Ultra HD shipments this year, an eightfold improvement over 2013.

The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers maintains that “4K” and “8K” should not be used to describe the two UHD formats, in part because UHD will comprise other improvements beyond extra pixels: the ability to display twice as many colors (though nowhere near all the eye can see or a camera can capture); greater dynamic range (darker shadows and lighter highlights, with more detail in both); a standardized maximum frame rate of 120 fps (very important for sports) and 24-channel sound. Taken together, that entire suite of upgrades will give television more picture detail and more sound channels than most cinemas.

The Intl. Telecommunications Union has published the standards road map for UHD, Rec. 2020, which includes all those enhancements, but few of them have actually been implemented in the first-generation 4K TVs; some of those standards are likely to become obsolete as more of those improvements are introduced. For example, Dolby Labs has already proposed a format that goes beyond Rec. 2020 in terms of brighter whites and colors, as well as much greater contrast ratio.
“One question I and people scattered around the industry have is: Is resolution enough to (make people) change?” asked Curt Behlmer, chief technology officer at Technicolor Entertainment Services.

With their improved delivery of color and dynamic range, UHD TVs may be eye-catching enough to entice consumers to buy even if they expect to watch only today’s HDTV on them. Most UHD televisions will feature built-in upscaling to convert HD content to higher resolution. But if consumers are satisfied with upscaled HD, there’s less reason for producers to incur the expense of upgrading to UHD production.

And those expenses will be substantial. For example, take mobile production trucks, essential for sports, concerts, awards shows and other live events — the kind of programing that’s likely to be a killer app for UHD TV. Outfitting an HD mobile truck from scratch today costs around $11 million, and there are approximately 180 trucks in North America. Some of the gear in those trucks can be used for UHD, but some will have to be replaced. The upgrade costs for those trucks alone, over time, are likely to reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Similar upgrades will be necessary at local stations, studios and networks. The extra resolution of UHD may also force networks and affiliates to spring for even spiffier, more handsome sets than they use to shoot HD, since viewers will be able to see more detail — and more flaws.

Former ESPN 3D topper Bryan Burns, now a consultant, told the recent SMPTE tech summit that to justify the expense of such an upgrade: “What you really need is day-in, day-out programming. … That’s a lot of money, and it’s hard to get done and it’s hard to pay for.”

Thus a chicken-and-egg problem: It’s difficult to justify the expense of UHD without regular programming, and it’s difficult to create regular UHD programming until the upgrades are done. That’s part of what doomed the last push for 3D TV.

However, TV networks and stations remember, to their sorrow, that they got no additional revenue from the transition from standard-def to HD. As David Hill, now senior executive VP at News Corp., complained about the HD transition in 2008: “We got conned. It cost us a fortune to go to HD, but do we get a penny more from the advertisers? Do we get an extra rating point? No. Everybody benefitted but the broadcasters.”

In production, 4K cameras don’t behave quite like HD cameras. They have a bigger sensor, which means they tend to have shallower depth of field. Some argue that shallower depth of field is more pleasing to most viewers — but that will force some videographers to rethink how they shoot.

“A lot of TV shows, including ‘The Michael J. Fox Show’ and ‘The Blacklist,’ are shooting in 4K,” says Peter Crithary, marketing manager for large-sensor camera technology for Sony. But so far, those are mostly single-camera shows that are recorded. The next step, says Crithary, is live 4K production. Sony has just introduced the live-fiber adaptor that will permit its F55 4K camera to be used for live sports, multicamera sitcoms, news and live events.

Sony has been experimenting with shooting such programming in 4K for several months, and claims success with its production of a Tory Burch fashion show and a performance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” of pop duo Karmin on the show’s outdoor performance stage. Both will be available on the 4K TV service that comes with Sony’s first UHD TVs.
Sony also did tests of live 4K soccer coverage at the Federation Cup in Brazil in June. “That will be followed up by the World Cup semifinals and finals in 4K,” says John Studdert, VP of strategic sales for Sony. “That’s going to give us tremendous exposure.”
Even if there’s a seamless transition to professional UHD cameras, there will likely be a period when 4K UHD cameras are used to shoot programs that most people watch in HD. “If you oversample at the beginning, you’re delivering a better HD,” said Johns, “and you’re actually eroding the difference between HD and Ultra-HD.”

Post-production seems like the strongest link in the UHD chain today. 4K post is well-established from feature films, and some existing HD post tools can handle 4K. However, TV visual effects — a critical part of such hits as “Game of Thrones,” “Boardwalk Empire” and more — are likely to become more difficult and costly in the new format. Rendering visuals at 4K resolution simply requires much more computing power, and some tricks and cheats that keep costs down today may not work with the extra detail UHD will reveal.

The vast file sizes of native 4K content are more difficult to store and move around than today’s digital HD files, but as the cost of storage decreases and computer networks get faster, that problem will likely subside.

All the extra data for more pixels, frames, colors and gray-levels would seem like an especially ominous development for broadcasters, cablers and satellite providers, who will have to squeeze all that data into the same size channels they use today for HD. Bandwidth limits kept “HD”-branded TV channels from even using the 1080p “Full HD” format used on Blu-ray disks; broadcasters and cablers use either 1080i or 720p.

But in fact, those companies seem unfazed by the prospect of a UHD transition, in part because a new standard is already in place that should let them send UHD over their existing channels: The High Efficiency Video Coding standard, also known as H.265, which was formally approved and published in 2013. HEVC uses several improvements in compression and takes advantage of increased computing power in broadcast encoders. Before it can be widely used, though, HEVC video decoders must be built into the chips that would be placed inside set-top boxes, TVs and other devices. Those chips aren’t available yet, but they likely will be by the end of 2014. That’s when UHD devices should start to proliferate, and cablers can offer UHD channels.

Broadcasters and pay TV suppliers will be hard-pressed to upgrade quickly once those chips arrive, because a wolf has arrived at their door since the HD transition: over-the-top streaming video providers. YouTube already has 4K content. Netflix has already begun testing streaming in 4K, with CEO Reed Hastings recently stating an intent to be one of the big suppliers of 4K next year. Not to be outdone, rival Amazon declared its own resolve to shoot in 4K, but hasn’t yet made clear when it will begin testing streaming in the new format.

Indeed, TV won’t have Ultra HD to itself for long; smaller screens are expected to play catch-up at CES. Dell is already marketing PCs with 24-inch and 32-inch Ultra HD displays. Panasonic wants to break into the tablet market with a $6,000 4K Toughpad.

Native 4K content will be embedded in companion devices sold along with select UHD sets from Sony and Samsung. UHD standards also have yet to be set for homevideo. Blu-ray disks could deliver UHD to the home, with the help of HEVC and other improvements. The Blu-ray Disk Assn., however, has yet to set a standard for UHD Blu-ray.

Other pieces of tech infrastructure required for UHD at home are falling into place. HDMI 2.0, already available, permits UHD signals to move among devices. The latest WiFi standard provides enough bandwidth for 4K streaming — for consumers with fast Internet service. Google and AT&T are both offering test markets for super-fast, all-fiber consumer broadband services that can support 4K streaming easily.

If all of this seems familiar, it may be because the buzz around UHD echoes the buzz for 3D TV just a few years ago, when 3D was positioned as the next big thing in home entertainment. Many pros still believe in 3D, saying the public never did see how good it can be. But the rollout was bungled, content didn’t materialize, and the public (at least in the U.S.) ultimately decided that it wasn’t excited by 3D (at least as long as glasses are involved).

UHD is easier to show off at retail, though, and it appears the filmed-entertainment industry is migrating toward 4K production anyway. Sony’s Studdert thinks there’s no turning back from UHD now.
“Unlike other things, specifically 3D, which had a great impact, but may have been before its time, 4K is inevitable,” he said. “Anybody who experiences 4K understands this is what they ultimately wants to get to. It’s just a matter of the industry getting the infrastructure in place to support what consumers want.”