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TV Makers Look To Pack More Pixels Into Your Home TV With 4K

Hollywood studios are wary of "ultra HD" or 4K TV making people more picky about what they watch in cinemas. But first, the TVs have to become mainstream.
Gero Breloer
Hollywood studios are wary of "ultra HD" or 4K TV making people more picky about what they watch in cinemas. But first, the TVs have to become mainstream.

Companies from Sony and Samsung to Netflix and Google's YouTube are putting their money into TVs that pack more pixels. Several models are on display at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week.

4K offers about four times the number of pixels compared to high-definition or 1080p. As of now, you can watch a select list of more than 70 4K films and TV shows, such as Breaking Bad and The Amazing Spider-Man, via a Sony media player or a video download service.

But, content providers and online distributors including Netflix, YouTube and Amazon have announced plans to stream content in 4K, including season two of Netflix's House of Cards. Some movies and shows are already being shot at this higher resolution, but despite the buzz, companies still have some significant hurdles to overcome.

Is Hollywood Worried?

4K is the next step beyond HDTV, says Marc Graser, senior editor at Variety. He wrote about 4K TVs ramping up the anxiety for studios because consumers will be able to watch movies at home at a resolution close to what they see in theaters.

"If the home experience and the screen that you have is good, if not great, then you're going to be very selective in what you choose to do and which movies you decide to pay for," Graser says, pointing out that while movie theaters show images at 4096 x 2160 resolution, the newest "ultra high-definition" TVs show them at 3840 x 2160.

He says several major studios contacted him after his story was published to say that this is indeed something they're keeping in mind. This could mean more films with a wide appeal.

"The studios don't necessarily know what audiences want to see, and they have to make sure that they make movies that appeal to everybody, and so you're getting these sequels, these big franchises," Graser says. "They have to appeal to everybody in order to make more money and make the costs worth it."

Remember 3-D TVs?

Although 3-D TVs were also pitched as the future of TV, they haven't caught on widely. Graser says 4K is different because it's not just the TV manufacturers who are on board — studios like Paramount Pictures and distributors like Netflix and Amazon are too.

"With 3-D TVs, they were just thrown out there and introduced, but there wasn't really any content to watch," Graser says. "With 4K TVs, the entire industry is rallying around it, so you've got the electronics companies, you've got Hollywood... . It's being positioned in the right way where the TVs are available, the content is available and more will be available."

More Pixels, More Data

But, an image with four times the pixels means a lot more data to transmit, says Michael Fink, a visual effects director who has worked on movies like Life of Pi and Tree of Life, and a professor at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts.

"Netflix has to figure out how to stream 4K images that look good," he says, pointing out that even existing TV channels can vary in picture quality, and the ones that look better come at a cost to the cable companies. Fink notes Netflix can bypass cable systems with Internet streaming, but that means the picture quality now depends on the speed of the Internet connection. Although some popular shows like Breaking Bad are available in 4K, he says it has yet to go mainstream.

"The manufacturers, the distributors, all the people involved in this side of the business haven't quite hit the magic combination that's going to get people to start accumulating [4K TVs]," Fink says. "Without software, without images to display on these, it's going to be a tough sell."

Big Screens Need Big Money, At First

Fink also says you'll need a big screen to see the difference, and big screens are expensive.

To really see the difference between 4K and HD in a living room, you'll need at least a 50-inch TV, says Paul Gagnon, director for global TV research at the market research firm NPD DisplaySearch. A 55-inch 4K TV from Samsung now costs around $3,000. But Gagnon does expect the market to grow as prices fall. A Samsung HDTV of the same screen size costs around $900.

"Any new technology is going to be a rich man's toy initially," Gagnon says. "What's different about this is that prices are going to come down really quickly."

And prices are dropping, according to a recent forecast from NPD DisplaySearch. Gagnon expects average prices in the U.S. to come down to around $2,000 by the end of 2014, and that around 800,000 4K TVs will be sold this year. Polaroid, the instant film company, displayed a 50-inch model at CES that costs around $1,000.

The driver of global demand, and the price drop, will be China, according to Gagnon. More than a million 4K TVs were sold in China in 2013, with demand expected to keep growing. Gagnon does note that most of the content there is upscaled to 4K by the TV, rather than being made in 4K; if it's not done well, the picture will look grainy, like taking a snapshot at low light. He says China will lead the global demand for 4K TVs, then the rest of the world will catch up in 2016.

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Alan was a Kroc Fellow at NPR and worked at WNPR as a reporter for three months. He is interested in everything from health and science reporting to comic books and movies. Before joining us, he studied journalism at Northwestern University, and worked at Psychology Today, NPR's Weekend Edition, and WBEZ in Chicago.