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Sales of 4K Playback Devices Belie the Lack of Content
4K was always a format pushed onto the market by consumer electronics vendors, and the relative lack of consumer interest in the higher resolution along with distribution bottlenecks are restricting adoption

The volume of Ultra HD source content and the number of end displays capable of viewing the higher resolution on is at an all-time high, yet the amount of 4K content that makes its way to an audience—either via SVOD, Blu-ray Disc, pay TV, or theatrical release—is remarkably small. 

Ampere Analsyis calls this the content gap and Futuresource Consulting states that the gap is widening.

"There are the usual claims of 4K availability via pay TV operators and OTT SVOD operators, but realistically these are marketing claims and produce a largely sub-par experience both in terms of the resolution actually received (owing again to file sizes) and volume of content," says Richard Cooper, research director at Ampere. "The whole in-home 4K experience is very dependent on having a fully compatible setup from end to end."

Anecdotal evidence reported by Ampere suggest that achieving the full 4K environment requires no small amount of expertise on the part of the consumer, and even those with all the kit may not actually be experiencing 4K if one aspect or component is set-up incorrectly.

The number of UHD devices in consumer homes continues to rise as prices fall. Some 35% of TVs sold globally this year are expected to be 4K UHD, a total of 79 million bringing total penetration to 8% according to Futuresource data. This is expected to reach a global average of 21% by 2021.

The UHD streaming market is on the rise, with worldwide shipments of 19.5 million expected through 2017 and accounting for 36% of all media streamers sold.

"There remains a widening content gap for 4K UHD content," says Futuresource analyst Tristan Veale. "While there is a significant quantity being shot, produced, and stored in 4K, a small proportion of that is reaching consumers despite the strong hardware sales."

Apple has launched a 4K Apple TV as well as an iTunes store with UHD titles. Its titles are bought without selecting a resolution quality and therefore users can stream 4K content if they have correct AV setup and fast enough broadband. Aggressive pricing of $20 per title means UHD movies on iTunes are $10 less per title than the physical equivalent.

"Other major providers are removing or simplifying their pricing options," says Veale, citing moves by Google and Amazon to reduce the cost of UHD titles. "18 million homes worldwide had a UHD SVOD subscription and a UHD TV on which to watch it in 2016. This will almost double to 33 million by the end of 2017 as not only device penetration increases but as services add UHD content making it either free or on a higher priced tier, which an increasing number of people are subscribing to."

The principal issue for 4K and higher resolutions lies not in the number of screens but the issues of in-home capabilities and content distribution.

"The processing of high-resolution images through post-production lowers the resolution largely due to the file sizes and processing times involved," says Cooper. "The result is an absence of 4K resolution in the content pipeline."

That is changing, though very slowly, and it's more common among 4K movies and TV shows currently available that they have just been upscaled at some stage rather than held in native 4K throughout.

Half of all content shot for cinema and high quality drama in the UK or U.S. in 2016 was recorded with 4K-capable cameras, however just 22% was subsequently mastered in 4K, states Futuresource.

Broadcasters aren't prepared to invest in the uplift required for content production and distribution of 4K UHD in part because consumers aren't demonstrating too much interest in the format.

UHD adoption is considerably slower than the take-up of HD from SD.

"Broadcast is currently displaying the most significant content gap with a high number 4K UHD device owners not yet having access to content. This is partly because the high capital outlay for the contribution and distribution of 4K UHD means that most operators see little incentive to shorten replacement lifecycles in order to provide 4K UHD STBs to consumers," says Veale.

Additionally, historical content originally shot in 4K is often not be held in that resolution long term; once the post production is done the original 4K footage is typically deleted due to the higher storage commitments.

"There is a 4K content gap in catalogue titles from the beginning of the digital revolution even through to the present day in many cases," says Cooper.

Broadcast 4K content remains relatively limited. By the end of 2017 Futuresource estimate there will be just over 100 UHD channels in operation across the globe, and Asia Pacific accounting for nearly 40% of those.

Where 4K content does exist, the only effective commercial way of getting this content into homes is really through physical media, says Ampere. Even here the analyst finds 4K Blu-ray Disc is niche even within the Blu-ray market and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

"Sales of Blu-ray players, again anecdotally, have been low even among households with 4K TVs," says Cooper. The number of titles (upscaled and native) available on the format hit the 200 mark this year; almost exclusively studio content supplemented by the extreme sports and panorama footage on manufacturer-supplied disc. "This rate of release places BD 4K way behind BD (about a third of the number) at a similar period after the format’s launch," he says.

Dynamic range is considered by many to matter more to the perceptual quality of an image than resolution. Even here, rollout is not fast. Just 7% of production companies are being asked to deliver in HDR despite HD HDR providing an increased quality of picture with just a small increase in bandwidth requirement, says Futuresource’s Veale. "However, HDR is a more difficult consumer message to convey, and therefore monetise, than 4K resolution."

It may require the impetus of an all-UHD/HDR FIFA World Cup which will be produced and delivered live from Russia next summer to kick-start enthusiasm for the format and for the necessary upgrades to internet connections into the home.

Related Articles
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Consumers are demanding 4K, so now it's up to operators to provide support. But how long will it take for everyone in the pipeline to get 4K-ready?
4K video is gaining traction and changing production workflows, but viewers aren't dazzled by higher resolutions, anymore: Look for HDR to have a bigger impact on consumers.