UHD's Breakout Year?25 Sep, 2017 By: Stephanie Prange
Are consumers willing to embrace another home entertainment format?
That’s the question on the minds of industry executives, who are optimistic about the chances of 4K Ultra HD with high dynamic range (HDR). The good news about the format has been gathering speed in 2017 as the all-important fourth quarter gift-giving season looms.
More than 4.8 million 4K Ultra HD TVs and about 1 million UHD Blu-ray playback devices sold in the first half of 2017, according to data from DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group.
“By the midpoint of 2017, more than 20 million 4K Ultra HD TVs and more than 4 million Ultra HD Blu-ray playback devices in total had been sold through to consumers, which tells us that a wide range of people are actively seeking out the best experience in immersive viewing for their homes,” said DEG president Amy Jo Smith. “We expect healthy format growth to continue, fueled by a rapid expansion of content. By this summer there were more than 166 Ultra HD Blu-ray titles available at retail, accounting for more than $100 million in consumer spend, and new content owners continue to come on board.”
In a big boost for content, Walt Disney Studios this summer threw its support behind 4K Ultra HD, becoming the seventh major Hollywood studio to announce titles on 4K UHD Blu-ray Disc.
“The slate of content from Disney, Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm is tailor-made for immersive experiences like 4K UHD, and as consumers’ ability to enjoy the format continues to grow, we are thrilled to bring audiences to the center of the action with the launch of our first 4K UHD titles this year, starting with the eye-popping Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” said Susan McLain, SVP of product management and distribution strategy for Disney/ABC Home Entertainment and Television Distribution.
Disney joined Fox, Lionsgate, Universal, Sony, Paramount and Warner in supporting the format, and the major studios are rolling out a blockbuster list of both new-release and classic titles, with a particular emphasis on HDR, which provides greater contrast and deeper, more lifelike colors.
“We’re continuing to explore the full potential of high dynamic range as we believe it represents the best possible viewing experience for consumers, and we have two tentpole titles leading our 2017 holiday slate with War for the Planet of the Apes and Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” said Hanno Basse, chief technology officer at 20th Century Fox.
“4K Ultra HD Blu-ray with HDR has truly set a new bar in home movie watching,” said Eddie Cunningham, president of Universal Pictures Home Entertainment. “As the 4K ecosystem continues to gain traction, Universal remains committed to delivering to consumers more of the most compelling 4K Ultra HD offerings possible, from tentpole releases like The Fate of the Furious and Despicable Me 3 to beloved gems such as Apollo 13 and E.T. — The Extra-Terrestrial.”
“We continue to be encouraged by the increase in 4K HDR disc sales,” said Man Jit Singh, president of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. “It is further proof that consumers value a high-quality home entertainment experience, especially when watching new releases and upgrading their libraries with classic titles such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
“Based on the format’s encouraging physical sales and the expansion among digital providers around the world, we are ramping up our catalog releases with 4K UHD plus HDR, including the entire ‘Transformers’ library,” said Bob Buchi, president of worldwide home media distribution at Paramount Pictures. “Carefully remastered under the direction of Michael Bay, these are the ideal films to take full advantage of the format’s superior picture and sound capabilities. Consumers can expect a robust slate of films from the Paramount library to complement the full array of new releases to be offered in 4K UHD with HDR.”
The wave of new titles is meeting an enthusiastic consumer, said Mark Fisher, president and CEO of the Entertainment Merchants Association.
“The consumer experience in viewing home entertainment has never been more exciting,” Fisher said. “Technology is providing superb picture and sound quality and consumers are embracing it.”
While lamenting the fact that UHD Blu-ray combo packs don’t “come with everything” from all studios (including 3D and digital copies), Adam Gregorich, co-owner/editor at enthusiast site Home Theater Forum, gives a thumbs up to the quality upgrade.
“We are in favor of anything that can provide the best experience possible in the home, and UHD is that,” he said. “We appreciate the fact that some studios are moving quickly to get a lot of recent catalog titles that benefit from HDR to market.”
“If you’re a fan of movies and you like to collect, 4K is phenomenal,” added Bill Hunt, editor of another enthusiast site, The Digital Bits. He added that site readers are so excited about the new format that they are buying 4K Blu-ray UHD discs before investing in the hardware.
Hardware manufacturers, which are rolling out TVs, streaming devices and UHD Blu-ray players, are enthusiastic about the format as well.
“Both in terms of brightness and contrast, HDR really takes the picture itself to a higher level,” said Jim Kiczek, VP of marketing, audio-video products, at Samsung. “By being able to faithfully reproduce the brightest images and the deepest blacks, consumers are able to experience more of what the creator intended. Our own QLED TV’s with Quantum Dot technology add to that by providing the richness of colors no matter how bright the image. So, a red rose remains red, and doesn’t fade to pink even in the brightest scenes.”
Ultra HD Blu-ray hardware is growing, with the number of manufacturers and number of products doubling since September 2016 (LG, Microsoft, Oppo, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung and Sony among them), according to data from the Blu-ray Disc Association. Player sales are up 133% in 2017, according to the BDA.
Samsung has been a pioneer in Blu-ray player hardware.
“Samsung has maintained leadership in the UHD Blu-ray category since introducing our first player last year,” Kiczek said. “Our 8500 Blu-ray player was the first to offer UHD Blu-ray with HDR capability. This year we expand on that offering with models that maintain that high-quality picture our customers have come to expect, while adding incredible smart capabilities. With the same interface and experience found on our premium TV lines, the new UBD M9500 features easy-to-access streaming, apps and the ability to send your content from the player to a mobile device. A viewer can be watching streaming video on the TV, while someone else in the home can view disc content on their mobile device — at the same time.”
Oppo Digital, too, has enthusiastically embraced UHD Blu-ray players.
“Oppo Digital is a true believer in this format,” said Jason J. Liao, CTO and VP of product development for Oppo Digital. “We have discontinued our entire product line of full-HD Blu-ray disc players, and moved to an all-UHD product line. Not only does UHD deliver four times the resolution of a full HD Blu-ray disc, but also comes with high dynamic range (HDR) and wide color gamut features. The latter two are vital for making the UHD viewing experience much better because of the refined contrast, greater brightness, and expanded color spectrum.”
As have several studios and other hardware companies, Oppo has added Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos to its products, offering an even more nuanced experience.
While UHD Blu-ray Discs are taking off, 4K digital offerings are also expanding, most recently with Apple’s entry into the market. Streaming devices in the market include Roku 4, Amazon Fire, NVIDIA Shield and Chromecast Ultra.
Noting that Warner has “always supported the position that the physical disc will ensure a consistent, premium quality viewing experience because it eliminates the variables that could impact digital streaming,” Jessica Schell, EVP and GM for Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, said the studio wants to satisfy the digital consumer as well.
“The studios want to promote the availability of a film in 4K UHD with HDR, across all formats (both physical and digital),” Schell said. “For the ecosystem to thrive, we need to meet the consumers where they are and there are some consumers who prefer to watch 4K HDR movies through digital services. At the end of the day, we feel the 4K HDR experience is the best way to watch a film.”
“Prospects for 4K Ultra HD streaming are promising,” said Michael Bonner, EVP of digital distribution for Universal Pictures Home Entertainment. “On the retail front, we are highly encouraged by the ever-growing commitment we’re seeing from our digital partners. On the content side, the 4K Ultra HD pipeline has evolved from a handful of offerings to a steady flow of product in just a few short months. Such solid momentum around emerging streaming options is great news for our digital consumers.”
“Currently 4K UHD Blu-ray with HDR10 is our primary means for getting premium content into the hands of our consumers that is also compatible with all HDR TV sets in the market today, but discussions with a number of streaming services are ongoing as we look to expand the 4K digital footprint,” Fox’s Basse said.
Digital services are finding consumers want the better quality 4K UHD offers.
“We’re seeing growing consumer demand for 4K,” said Cameron Douglas of FandangoNow, Fandango’s video service. “The industry is at another one of those inflection points where consumers are demanding higher quality presentation. FandangoNow knew how important 4K was to our consumers and to our CE partners, so our team has been working overtime to bring 4K content to consumers over the last three years, and we are proud to be a leader in the field.”
The UHD Alliance, the inter-industry group that promotes Ultra HD with HDR entertainment technology, recently announced the completion of Ultra HD Premium specifications for additional content delivery devices such as streaming media players, set-top boxes and desktop PCs. It also broadened its mission to include monitoring and maximizing interoperability between product categories, readying itself for what it projects is explosive growth in the category. Nearly 50% of U.S. homes will have UHD TV by 2020, according to data cited by the Alliance, and nearly one-third of global households will have UHD TV by 2021.
“The 4K UHD market is growing at an accelerated pace,” said Mike Fidler, president of the UHD Alliance. “As new devices such as 4K UHD TVs, 4K UHD Blu-ray players, 4K UHD streaming media players, 4K Mobile devices and 4K computer displays are introduced, consumers look to industry leaders for direction. The Alliance, from the beginning, has been focused on identifying premium-quality delivery of 4K resolution, combined with high dynamic range, wide color gamut, 10-bit color depth and immersive audio with a set of high performance specifications for devices (home and mobile), content, distribution and mastering recommendations. Consumers can look for the Ultra HD Premium logo to identify products that deliver a premium experience in 4K UHD with HDR.”
As the format expands, he said marketing is key.
“With the introduction of so many new product categories, the Alliance feels it is critical that we take a broader view of consumer education and expand our efforts for the benefit of the entire ecosystem,” the UHD Alliance’s Fidler said.
Consumer awareness of HDR remains relatively low, according to the Alliance. It is highest in United States but still under 50% globally.
“With 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, seeing is believing,” said Universal’s Cunningham. “Educating consumers around the format’s stunning resolution, color brilliance and multi-dimensional sound is of the utmost priority across the industry and can be effectively achieved if the studios rally to ensure that consumer communications are clear, concise and consistent.”
“Warner Bros. works very closely with our consumer electronics colleagues to incorporate 4K HDR clips and images from our 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray releases whenever possible,” Warner’s Schell said. “This is an ideal way to ensure that the consumer understands the quality of content available to watch in 4K HDR on these new 4K HDR TVs.”
Hardware manufacturers will be doing their part as well. Samsung Electronics America Sept. 1 announced an exclusive U.S. marketing and retail partnership with Xbox to utilize Samsung’s lineup of QLED TVs as the official 4K TV partner for the Xbox One X. Gamers will be able to experience Xbox One X on QLED 4K TVs at various Xbox and Samsung marketing and retail activations throughout the United States. Consumers will also see a custom Samsung TV spot showcasing Xbox One X and QLED together that will run nationally around the launch of Xbox One X this fall.