Why the UHD Transition is NOT the HDTV Transition

If you’re feeling some weird sense of déjà vu with the chicken-egg conundrum surrounding the production of 4K content/broadcasting and UHD TV sales, it’s because you have vague recollections of the introduction of HDTV back in the late 1990s.

While there are definite similarities between these multi-million pixel TV transitions, there are several tipping-point differences between the two that should help dispel your déjà vu.

But first, a broadcast 4K update.

At the recently concluded IFA show in Berlin, I was part of a group of journalists invited to dine with executives from Samsung, Panasonic and LG to discuss UHD, UHD Blu-ray, HDR and the 4K ecosystem in general. The highlights, apropos this discussion:

• The overall theme of the discussion was TV makers’ desire to speed up the TV replacement cycle, especially with the addition of HDR to the baseline HDR standards CEA adopted around a month ago.

• Initial 4K broadcasting experiments are already taking place in Europe, Asia and the U.K. The BBC has been testing 4K broadcasting for more than a year. Sony and IFA recorded three World Cup games from Brazil last year – not for broadcast or streaming, but for local and later demo viewing. In Germany, Eutelsat just start broadcasting Europe’s first UHD channel, the 24-hour HotBird 4K1, available for viewing across most of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. In the U.S. this past July, NHK, seemingly always a next-gen TV instigator, did inside-the-stadium 8K broadcasts of three baseball games at Yankee Stadium.

• According to the execs at the CEA dinner, 4K broadcasting requires only the establishment of “common monolithic” standards and a critical mass of UHD TVs in the market. The Ultra HD Forum, which posts a continually updated list of commercial UHD broadcast deployments, is working with operators and broadcasters to develop these end-to-end ecosystem standards. DTC published a list of the most prominent 4K content and streaming sources last month.

• Everyone hopes there’s a 4K broadcast standard in place to showcase in time for the Rio Olympics next summer, despite reports from earlier this year that this wouldn’t happen, at least officially. In the meantime, we were told there’d be multiple “unique” 4K broadcast demos at CES this coming January.

HDTV-UHD Transition Differences

So why can you dispose of your HDTV transition déjà vu? Three reasons:

1. There were no streaming content sources 17 years ago to help introduce consumers to the new HDTV technology as there is for 4K/UHD. In many ways, thanks to the increasing 4K streaming content and sources (and in spite of the U.S. having one of the developed world’s worst broadband infrastructures), the UHD evolution doesn’t occur by broadcasting or UHD Blu-ray alone. Although the streaming solution has its drawbacks in access and quality (read: bandwidth constraints), it provides another choice from the video distribution menu.

2. The FCC doesn’t need support from and won’t get any flack from Congress. Back in 1997, the HDTV transition required both government bodies to affect major and controversial shifts in spectrum allocation and channel allotment. But neither of these airwave alterations are necessary this time around. So, the TV execs at the CEA dinner intimated that whatever UHD broadcast standards were agreed to by the industry would find a friendly reception from the FCC, with no need for Congress to even get involved.

3. Most consumers have now experienced next-gen TV transitions. Except this time around, there’s no need for a government edict or a massive government-funded set-top box supply effort. The UHD transition will be totally industry-driven, its fate dependent solely on market acceptance, not Federal fiat.

All of which means that the UHD transition may not go as quickly as the HDTV transition or go the way the industry wants it to go, if it goes at all, which is probably how it should be. But these differences should dispel any previous next-gen TV transition déjà vu.