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4K TV: The shape of things to come, someday

Breaking Bad

A still from "Breaking Bad."

Netflix is now streaming more 4K content, including Breaking Bad and a few movies. That follows a trend of growing 4K content, which is also called Ultra HD.

It’s very unlikely you’ll be watching, because only a handful of people have 4K TVs. Maybe you’ve never even heard of 4K -- and that’s OK, because hardly anyone has.

“Awareness is incredibly low,” says Glenn Hower of Parks Associates, a consumer technology research company. “Consumers, they aren’t familiar with the terminology. They don’t know what 4K is, what it means.”

4K promises an enhanced viewing experience, with four times more pixels than HD. But some reviewers who have done side-by-side comparisons say it’s pretty hard for mere humans to tell the difference unless they stand extremely close to the screen.

All those pixels cost a great deal of money. Ben Arnold with NPD Group says a 4K television can cost 50 percent more or double the cost of a comparable HD television. That’s a key reason why he estimates there are only around 100,000 4K sets in use in America.

A key to selling 4K sets is the existence of 4K content. There isn’t much out there now. Companies that offer it, whether they are cable, streaming or broadcast, could score by picking up new customers. Or they might regret it, like companies that recently invested in home 3D, which has been a disaster.

Mark Garrison: First, it’s OK if you’ve never heard of 4K. Hardly anyone has, says Glenn Hower of Parks Associates, a consumer tech research company.

Glenn Hower: Awareness is incredibly low. Consumers, they aren’t familiar with the terminology. They don’t know what 4K is, what it means.

4K screens promise enhanced pictures, with four times more pixels than HD. And you will pay dearly for them.

Ben Arnold: On average, you can expect to pay anywhere from 50% more to double.

Ben Arnold with NPD Group estimates there are only around 100-thousand 4K sets in use in America. We’re all smart enough to know if we wait, prices will drop. Electronics manufacturers and retailers want us to buy now. Jim Willcox at Consumer Reports says it’ll only happen if we get something to watch.

Jim Willcox: Content’s clearly one of the things that drives hardware. There’s always that chicken and egg situation when you have a new format.

Netflix and others that offer 4K might make money on new customers. Or they might regret it, like companies that recently invested in home 3D, which has been a disaster. Jonathan Sterne is a communications technology professor at McGill University.

Jonathan Sterne: There isn’t one recipe. But without content, you won’t have mass uptake. So someone basically has to take a bet on it.

One thing we’ll probably see more of: nature documentaries. The TV business loves them, believing close-ups of cuddly animals and bright birds get people to open their wallets for fancy TVs. I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter and substitute host for Marketplace, based in New York.

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