Get Ready for a Long Road to 8K

For reasons seemingly cynical and silly, Samsung will soon start selling four different sizes of its Q900FN QLED 8K TVs introduced earlier this month at IFA in Berlin: 75- and 65-inch models due to go on sale in October; and 85- and 82-inch sets (limited markets) in November.

Samsung wasn’t alone in unveiling 8K sets at IFA. TCL will start selling a special FIBA Basketball World Cub 2019 75-inch quantum dot 8K set next May, likely in China and Europe only.

LG announced an 88-inch OLED set, but kept it behind appointment-only closed doors. We were told the set is more of a trial balloon designed to gauge reaction and interest. Vestel and Grundig joined the party by displaying 8K sets, though, neither vendor made any formal statement of sales intention.

On the surface, all this 8K attention seems bonkers. Outside of a handful of 8K travelogue videos on YouTube content from Japanese broadcaster NHK, there is no 8K content anyone can watch at home.

Admitting the paucity of current and future 8K content, Samsung instead concentrated on its 8K upconversion capabilities. At its IFA booth, Samsung devoted significant display space to demonstrate how material from DVD (which typically looks terrible on 4K sets) to 4K was enhanced by its 8K upconversion processing engine. After all, 8K offers 33 million pixels vs. “only” 8 million pixels.

Practically, however, this seemingly whopping increase in resolution is sort of like trying to rationalize how much richer someone worth $33 billion dollars is than someone worth “only” $8 billion. Sure, there was some improvement in how 720 and 1080 material looked upconverted to 4K compared to upconverted to 8K—and even some minor improvements in 4K footage upconverted to 8K. Bu these improvements—noticeable only when pointed out in side-by-side comparisons—are hardly worth the 100x pricing vector.

Pricing/Profitability

Ah, the 8K price vector. Now we’re getting to the real 8K TV rationale.

While no formal pricing was announced, Samsung did tell us that the 85-inch version would be priced in the ritzy $10,000-plus neighborhood. Given the current shoddy 4K price neighborhood, these sudden 8K intros are suddenly easy to understand.

In 2003, only a few years after HDTVs went on sale, the average selling price for all TVs in the U.S. market, according to CTA, was $466. By 2007, TV ASPs reached a peak of $911, then started a gradual decline, sinking back to $495 in 2013, the year the first UHDs appeared. In other words, it took around 15 years for pricing on HDTVs to drop back to the same prices as non-HDTVs had sold in the late 1990s.

Then higher-priced and higher-profit UHDs appeared, and TV makers again prospered, but for all-too-brief a bubble. In less than five years, UHD ASPs have nose-dived from $4,000-plus in 2013 to less than $900 this year. It’s now easy to find 55-inch 4K UHD models for less than $500, the same price similarly-sized HDTVs sold for just a few years ago. This commodity 4K pricing has crippled TV profit margin and supplier profitability, forcing popular TV brands such as Panasonic, Pioneer, Toshiba and Hitachi to largely abandon the mainstream TV business, replaced by Chinese brands who have an easier time making money on 4K TV.

So, Samsung’s seemingly silly move to 8K makes perfect economic sense, even if the technology is nowhere near prime-time. In fact, 8K technology not being anywhere near prime-time is a benefit, not a bug. Without any 8K ecosystem, large-screen 8K sets will remain a low-volume/high-price premium purchase for years, attractive to early adopters wanting to replace projectors in dark rooms or even just to achieve high-tech bragging rights. As a result, profitability on 8K sets will be boosting TV maker bottom lines for years to come, even if the 8K market does attract a couple of other vendors. This means 8K is not an aberration, but is destined to be a permanent structure on the TV landscape.