Technology Blog

UHD: nightmares for broadcasters and early adopters alike?

It’s risky being an early adopter: the kudos of being first has to be balanced against the risk of owning an immature product that is rapidly obsolete. Connectivity is the biggest risk, in that newer devices may handle signalling in subtly different ways. Digital interconnects have complex handshaking protocols and will result in no picture if they fail. Typically such failures come when the early device behaves unexpectedly in response to an advanced device’s signal.

This situation has arrived. Early 4K TV sets were not capable of displaying high dynamic range (HDR) or wide colour gamut (WCG). Indeed, such signals were not standardised when their chipsets were designed. As a result, early sets can give anomalous results when interrogated by sources such as set-top boxes for pay TV. A recent “plugfest” by a leading satellite provider in Europe to test operability revealed that around half of 2015 4K TVs failed to respond correctly to signals with HDR or WCG.

Research, especially by the 4EVER Consortium in France, paints a clear picture: HDR has far more visible impact than resolution for most consumers, with WCG very noticeable for certain genres. HDR suits outdoor shots in particular, making it a perfect fit with premium sports coverage. Yet TV brands rushed into higher resolution without thoroughly understanding viewing perception—it’s like car makers putting larger engines into their cars without corresponding improvements in tyres and brakes.

This creates a dilemma for broadcasters: the mismatch dramatically reduces the accessible installed base for the type of ultra-high-definition (UHD) service that they believe will offer real value, which is 4K with HDR. Alternatively, offering 4K resolution alone—which is compatible with legacy TVs—risks a “so what” response from viewers as well as commercial failure.

All told, a smaller installed base of compatible TVs is likely to delay the launch of services, with pay-TV providers typically finding that 3% household penetration is when economic viability starts. It is ironic, then, that the rush among CE brands to 4K may also be what delays UHD services.

Paul Gray is Principal Analyst for Television Sets, IHS Markit