Is UHD Blu-ray The Last Gasp of Packaged Media?

It’s not exactly a secret: UHD TV sales are on the rise. Duh. According to DTC, sales of UHD sets are due to rise 142% this year, and are projected to reach 43.6 million units and 60% of the total market by 2020.

What’s puzzling is why UHD TVs are selling well, considering the dearth of 4K content to watch on them. Yes, there is a growing amount of streaming 4K content from Netflix, Amazon, MGo and other OTT outlets. But a minimum 25Mbps is needed to stream 4K at least from Netflix and, presumably, close to that from the other streaming sources—and not many folks pay for that much wireless juice. Both DirecTV and DISH deliver UHD content, but the selections are limited.

The bulk of what UHD TV buyers watch on their fancy new sets is standard 2K “broadcast” and cable channels automatically up-converted to 4K. These 4K up-converting capabilities UHDs vary widely from set to set and, oddly, are rarely discussed or mentioned in reviews.

Into this 4K content vacuum steps UHD Blu-ray. Considering the popularity of UHD TVs and the dearth of 4K content, you’d think UHD TV buyers would be snapping up UHD BD decks and UHD Blu-ray titles.

Surprisingly, not so much.

On the hardware side, Samsung has sort of had the UHD Blu-ray market to itself since its UBD-K8500 deck went on sale a couple of months back. But without word from Samsung on volume, it’s hard to define the deck’s relative sales success. When we checked last week, the UBD-K8500 was not among the top 45 best selling BD/DVD players on Amazon in the U.S. or in Japan, was a relatively lofty #8 in Germany, #16 in Italy and #30 in the U.K. In a couple of these markets, consumers were informed that only a few units were left in stock, with no indication that more might be on the way.

One reason for UHD BD deck buying hesitancy might be the dearth of UHD BD titles – around 25 at the moment, a promise of around 100 or more by the end of the year. And even those UHD BD titles that are out there aren’t as hot as you’d imagine. On Amazon in the U.S., the top-selling UHD Blu-ray is Deadpool at around #20, the only UHD BD title in the top 100 selling Blu-ray titles; The Revenant is hovering just outside the top 100, with X-Men Apocalypse, Gods of Egypt, The Divergent Series: Allegiant inside the top 200.

Any buyer of UHD BD hardware is likely to buy a pile of titles simultaneously, so the lack of top-selling 4K titles is an indication of low hardware sales, and not exactly encouraging.

New Players, Old Problems

Other potential UHD BD player vendors bravely watched from the sidelines to see how well the Samsung deck performed before releasing their own decks. Around three weeks ago, P&F USA announced its BDP7501 Philips-branded deck would appear, at least in the U.S., sometime this month.

And in a week or so, Panasonic will give the tech press a preview of its first real consumer UHD BD deck, which will likely hit shelves, both physical and virtual, in the fall. Last November, the company quietly started selling the first-ever UHD BD deck, the recording DIGA DMR-UBZ1, in Japan. As of last week, it was number #25 among the best-selling BD/DVD decks on Japanese Amazon at a whopping $2,500 price point, which likely makes it an outlier in the overall UHD BD market.

Not to disparage either Philips or Panasonic, but the lack of decks from the other major UHD brands including LG, Sony and Vizio, make it appear as if the industry in toto is tentative about the whole UHD Blu-ray idea.

It has been tentative about UHD BD, it is tentative about UHD BD and it will continue to be tentative about UHD BD. But even if the industry were moving in UHD BD lock-step, it wouldn’t be for long.

Just like it’s no surprise that UHD TV sales are ascendant, it’s also no surprise that packaged media sales are descendant.

Coupled with consumers’ growing disinterest in physical media is the ripening of 4K-friendlier non-physical delivery technologies. Cable providers are providing more robust broadband. The first WiGig/802.11ad routers, capable of delivering up to 4.6Gbps in close proximity, were announced at CES. Verizon has started field demonstrating 5G, with test speeds approaching 4Gbps, 400 times that of 4G LTE (although real-life speeds are likely to be less than half that and meaningful 5G commercial deployments some years away) and several times that of Wi-Fi, for possible 2017-2020 deployment to replace costlier direct-to-home fiber FiOS installations.

Then there’s the promise of OTA 4K delivery via ATSC 3.0.Until all these things come to pass, however, UHD Blu-ray is the only way that consumers with high-end displays with high refresh rates, high resolution, and HDR and WCG attributes can experience the highest-fidelity experience as possible on their high-end hardware. That gives UHD Blu-ray a window for success, but it’s probably only a window. The size of that window depends on how quickly all the other delivery methods are properly implemented.

Not so with 4K video. The resolution and HDR attributes of streamed 4K content and UHD Blu-ray content are getting closer to each other for those who have adequate streaming bandwidth. It will take these new technologies and infrastructure to get all the way there.

So, as soon as wireless delivery systems easily and ubiquitously support 4K video content downloading and streaming as today’s wireless delivery systems support music downloading and streaming, the need for separate UHD BD discs and players is likely to disappear.