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How the restrictive landscape of 4K content needs to improve and what’s being done about this

by on February 7, 2015

Stephan Jukic – February 07, 2015

While Ultra HD TVs steadily become more popular in just about every major market on Earth and content steadily (though a bit slowly) creeps forward to catch up with these exploding 4K TV sales, there are still a few serious problems in the industry that need to be resolved and soon.

Most crucial among these is the restrictive proprietary patchwork nature of 4K media and the way in which it’s affecting the user experience for millions of 4K TV buyers.

What we’re talking about is the fact that the latest waves of 4K smart TV platforms are often governed and restricted by all sorts of exclusivity deals and special content restrictions which mean that buying any given 4K TV doesn’t even come close to giving the you the user full access to any type of 4K content, even if you’re willing to pay for it in many cases!

The Fences That Divide Content

For example, the largest and best known streaming content services, Netflix and Amazon, are only available on some TVs. Arguably, the selection of TVs that accept either is quite broad and getting broader all the time but there are still some restrictions that shouldn’t be the case.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Netflix announced a new program called “Recommended TV”, which is designed to allow certain specific manufacturers to show the UHD streams that the company offers. This program goes into effect as of the spring and will include a Netflix logo that will be affixed to 4K internet connected TVs that will be capable of showing the company’s UHD video streams.

One of the initial partners in the program was LG but other models from Sony, Vizio and Samsung will also be included, all of which must have HEVC codec compatibility in order to open up the Netflix 4K streams.

While Amazon isn’t necessarily offering the same specific program, similar restrictions apply to its service, making it available only to select TV models with HEVC decoding ability.

And if we take a look at newly arrived 4K services from M-Go and Comcast, the restrictions on who can see the content with which 4K TVs get much harsher. With either of these providers, their UHD selections are only going to be available (for now) to users of Samsung UHD TVs manufactured in 2014.

Then there’s the very largest of all the content services on the market today, the Sony Video Unlimited 4K VoD service, but even here we see restrictions in place: for one thing, you need a $700 Sony 4K media player in order to access it and only certain TV models are compatible with the media device. Fortunately though, at least Sony has had the foresight to allow their media player to be used on TVs other than Sony’s own.

Media Player's like Sony's FMP-X10 are expanding the content landscape but still restricted to a limited range of UHD TVs

Media Player’s like Sony’s FMP-X10 are expanding the content landscape but still restricted to a limited range of UHD TVs

Lingering 4K Video Compression Barriers

The codec system that allows 4K to be compressed for streaming also remains something of a barrier to access. While most services (including Netflix and Amazon) use the HEVC/H.265 compression codec, Google is still out there pushing forward its own version of the same, called VP9. Naturally, VP9 encoding goes with YouTube’s growing library of user generated 4K content.

In essence, this means that there are still two distinct codec competing for space in the 4K content market and they’re not interchangeable, meaning that TVs and PCs have to come with both in order to play the widest possible selection of content.

To make things worse, even if a TV is equipped with the more widely used HEVC decoder, it still might not be able to access all the services that use the codec. This is because there are often certification barriers that the streaming services offering 4K content put on certain TVs that don’t have their stamp of approval.

Then there are 4K PCs, which are basically cut off from all streaming UHD content from Netflix or Amazon, even if they have the right internet speed and ultra HD monitors. Why? Because they lack HDCP 2.2 content protection standards in their internal HDMI 2.0 connections. This will change eventually as PC makers get in on the uptake but for now, it’s just one more annoying barrier to thousands of UHD PC owners who are hoping to watch proprietary 4K content from their desktops and laptops just like they can do with thousands of Full HD shows that get streamed online.

Why the 4K Future Still Looks Bright

Nonetheless, despite these annoying and still lingering content barriers (and others we didn’t even get around to mentioning) that plague 4K content proliferation, the scene is changing and its going to continue to change until we see something far more open and flexible emerge.

The simple inertia of consumer demand for convenience will play a part in making this happen while at the same time the same content producers, broadcasters and electronics makers who want more customers will bow to the inevitable pressures of the market.

For starters, we’ve already seen the creation of the UHD Alliance, a consortium of companies involved in 4K which has been put together to address exactly the problems described above and standardize 4K content so that it’s as plug-and-play as possible. The players that make up the Alliance include Twentieth Century Fox, DirecTV, Dolby, Sharp, Sony, Samsung, Disney, Netflix and a number of others. Together they represent an enormous amount of market power even if people like Google, Vizio and a few lesser known 4K TV brands are still absent from the organization.

Furthermore, platform-neutral 4K content is definitely on the way. Dish Network and DirecTV are both building their own 4K satellite services that will be compatible with pretty much any 4K television that subscribes and 4K Blu-ray discs are on the way for the end of 2015. These too are expected to be fully platform neutral as long as basic specs are present in a 4K TV that uses the new 4K Blu-ray discs.

The UHD Alliance is bringing together most of the major players in 4K to ease standards and broaden usability for 4K media

The UHD Alliance is bringing together most of the major players in 4K to ease standards and broaden usability for 4K media

Bandwidth Solutions on the Way

Even if you get your hands on the right kind of 4K TV for displaying a maximal selection of content from different providers –and so far your best bet for this is probably a Samsung 4K model from 2014 or 2015—there is still the internet connectivity problem to deal with.

This is because, no matter how compatible your TV is with the encoding standards of the latest and best streaming content, it still needs to be hooked up to an internet connection that delivers at least 20 Mbps of connectivity. Netflix itself recommends at least 25 Mbps and so too does Amazon.

Unfortunately, only 19% of U.S homes are hooked to this kind of “4K-ready” web connection.

Fortunately however, even this might have a solution that’s coming soon. Beamr, a post-encoding video streamlining and optimization system is being developed in cooperation with movie studios and streaming media providers to decrease the bitrates of 4K video transmissions by even more than what HEVC compression offers.

What this means is that a transmission using Beamr should be able to take a 4K video which requires 25Mbps to send and chop it down even further to just 9.5Mbps. This means much broader access to more U.S households and theoretically faster adoption of 4K streams by potential customers, thus speeding up the content proliferation that’s needed to make 4K media more broadly accessible on a wider variety of platforms.

Beamr is still in the development stage but it was functionally showcased at the International CES this last January and the company behind it also explained that their system works with the already standardized HEVC video compression codec.

The bottom line in the universe of 4K content and technology is that the medium is here to stay and this means that standardization is on the way. The players in the industry know this, consumers will demand this before they really hop on the bandwagon and those who’ve gotten in early will only see their options for ultra HD entertainment on whatever kind of 4K TV they have grow larger.

Story by 4k.com


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  • Mark Ringwald
    February 9, 2015 at 11:52 am

    HDR compliance is another issue. 4K HDR was everywhere at CES. So will your TV be able to handle the 10 to 12bit color depth and work with DolbyVision or one of the competing systems?


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