The video divide: 4K haves and have nots

Traditional TV's unwillingness to offer 4K content is giving new players a huge opportunity

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Credit: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

Courtesy of Black Friday/Cyber Monday pricing, I am the proud owner of a brand new, top-of-the-line 82"Samsung 4K TV set. It is huge, awesome, and amazing. The picture quality is breathtaking. You just run out of superlatives when trying to describe the viewing experience. There's only one problem. The best 4K content is only available over-the-top (OTT). Regular TV viewers (cable TV customers and antenna users) are simply out of luck.

In fairness, both major satellite providers offer some 4K content. DISH offers Netflix, and DirecTV has a dedicated 4K channel. But satellite TV is not for everyone. I don't subscribe to either in New York City, so my choices for 4K content range from Amazon Prime to YouTube.

I have an Xbox One X (which supports 4K HDR); PlayStation 4 Pro is also 4K compatible. (Not surprisingly, it works out-of-the-box with Sony 4K sets. Other 4K HDR sets take a little configuration.)

Comcast is not available in New York City, but its Xfinity service offers a few NBCU titles in 4K on demand.

For videophiles, 4K Blu-ray discs are probably the very best quality experience, but it's only for pre-recorded material (obviously) and, more importantly, do you really want to invest in another "guaranteed to be obsolete sooner than later" physical media collection?

The Video Divide

Traditional TV's unwillingness to offer 4K content is giving new players (with very different business models and cost structures) a huge opportunity to take advantage of the demand-side disruption that 4K (soon to be 8K) technology will create.

This has the potential to bifurcate big-screen video viewers into two distinct economic segments: those who can afford 4K sets and the required bandwidth and can afford to pay for premium on-demand services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and iTunes (soon to be Apple TV), and those who can't.

People who can't afford 4K content and its hefty monthly bandwidth bill will have to make do with standard definition and regular 2K HD content (where available) from cable providers and over-the-air television stations.

The video viewing world may be divided into premium video haves, who pay and therefore do not see commercial messages, and video have nots, who are forced to endure endless commercial breaks and least-common-denominator, mass-market content.

Probable Futures

One probable solution to the bifurcated video world would be the advent of premium subsidies from brands – a twist on the "brought to you by" model.

Another probable future would have Walmart or Best Buy or other mega-retailers getting into the premium OTT content distribution business to obtain the requisite first-party data and to create new messaging models (which would counteract the diminishing value of the remaining broadcast TV audience, the video have nots).

The State of the Art

Today, the video divide is inconsequential. 4K sets upconvert 2K content, and there aren't enough 4K sets out there to make much of a difference. But that's today. Samsung, LG, Sony, and every other TV manufacturer is 100 percent all-in on 4K. At CES in January, I'm expecting to see Samsung show off its latest, greatest 8K sets.

Within a few years, it will be hard to find a 2K set (go try to buy a 480p standard definition set), because the premium devices will be 8K and 4K will be the norm.

Traditional cable and satellite and even over-the-air video distributors are going to have a very hard time using their existing infrastructure to bring you 4K, let alone 8K. This will be the bastion of ISPs (internet service providers) and 5G providers (assuming 5G follows the approximate adjusted timing of 4G's deployment and adoption).

This leaves us at a very interesting four-way crossing. Make a right to 4K, go straight to 8K, or make a left and concentrate on mobile devices? Which way will you turn?

Author's note: This is not a sponsored post. I am the author of this article and it expresses my own opinions. I am not, nor is my company, receiving compensation for it.

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