An introduction to 4K television, and why it’s more than a better picture

In the next couple of years, TV will change significantly, both from a distribution, content and rights point of view.

From the rights point of view, UK customers have until now enjoyed a single provider for all their television. This has slowly moved to multiple providers, for instance Netflix and a Sky subscription. With BT winning the Champions League rights from Sky, this leads us further down the path of more subscriptions – similar to the US television model.

Netflix stock price since broadcasting House of Cards
Netflix stock price since broadcasting House of Cards

On the content side, we’ve’ve seen new companies commission (the TV word for “fund and then produce”) new shows. The leading example here is Netflix and their House of Cards production. See the stock price chart above – House of Cards was released on Netflix in February 2013. Netflix’s share price has doubled since then, and the second series is being released on Netflix next month.

While traditional broadcasters are churning out low-quality reality TV, Netflix are hiring A-list celebrities to produce high-quality drama. Which one is likely to attract the most viewers?

For the latest new television technology, 4K, it’s the distribution method more than the screen technology that I find interesting. I’m not playing down the advanced engineering and manufacturing to get 4,000 pixels working completely separately resulting [finally] in pure black.

4K will be the first television media technology distributed over the Internet before physical media.

In the past we’we’ve used DVDs to introduce HD technology (before satellite and then digital terrestrial broadcast).

With 3D TV (I never saw the point personally and I think we’ll see 3D services being quietly shut down this year), it was available on DVD and then satellite too.

The first 4K broadcaster will be Netflix. Think about that… a seven-year old company is beating the BBC and Sky to a new consumer broadcast technology.

And the reason for this is straightforward. The infrastructure required to support 4K is already in place. 4K “only” requires a (stable)  8 Mbit Internet connection. To distribute this over satellite television would mean removing some other channels – there isn’t the remaining bandwidth to broadcast all of Sky’s existing channels and a new 4K one. This is also why so many of Sky’s SD channels seem low quality – they have been compressed to squeeze the data into the broadcast.

Digital cinemas have been using the internet to download 4K movies for some time. A 4K movie is between 90 Gb and 300 Gb. Although, a cinema can afford to take a long time to download the film if it is only allowed going to be viewed in a few days’ time. With Netflix, which is currently streaming only, you’ll need that stable 8 Mbit connection.

What does this all mean for consumers?

Two things. The first is that we are moving ever toward non-physical content: think rental, or Spotify, not buying DVDs.

The second, is if you are planning to buy a 4K TV, make sure you’ve got a decent Internet connection.

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