It arrived on Monday, like a hyper-detailed unicorn emerging from the HDR mist. Samsung, Sony, Dolby, 20th Century Fox, and a host of other companies were teaming up to form the UHD Alliance. Its mission: to standardize terminology and expectations around Ultra High-Definition, sweeping away 4K confusion and accelerating consumer adoption in the process.
Samsung display executive H.S. Kim called it a “game changer.”
Bill Lee, the company’s VP of TV, said it was a “great opportunity for the industry to rally around UHD.”
It’s not going to be that easy.
With no defined ecosystem and products rushing into market, Ultra High Definition has become a mess. Manufacturers are putting out 4K televisions, trying to one-up each other by signing exclusive content deals that might be good for them, but lock out other manufacturers. Meanwhile both streaming services and cable/satellite providers are picking and choosing when they want to get involved and who they’re ready to work with. And then there’s the matter of high dynamic range. With the first wave of televisions failing to catch fire, everyone’s looking for the magic bullet that will make 4K a must-have for consumers. Many think the brilliant, vibrant imagery of HDR is the answer — but there are multiple options out there to choose from as well.
The UHD Alliance is claiming it can fix all of this, so in the wake of the announcement let’s grade the biggest players in the game — and those that should be.
ALLIANCE MEMBER: Yes GRADE: CSamsung has been one of the most active manufacturers in the world of 4K, and it’s the company that spearheaded the UHD Alliance. There’s no denying it's committed to the format. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the worst actors, with Samsung cutting a string of exclusive content deals that limit the proliferation of 4K, and confusing customers with its terrible naming conventions. (Someone explain SUHD. Please.) To really help the 4K ecosystem, Samsung will need to learn to play nice with others.
ALLIANCE MEMBER: Yes GRADE: ASony has been espousing the benefits of 4K for years, from its movie cameras to its televisions. It’s also one of the biggest providers of 4K content: Sony’s 4K Media Player was the first way to actually watch 4K material, and Sony Pictures movies are available on every 4K service out there. Its entertainment arm isn’t officially part of the alliance — only Sony’s TV division is — but given how committed the company has been overall we can’t slight them for that. The only ding we’d add is the company’s slightly murky branding when it comes to high dynamic range technology, but that’s the kind of branding issue the UHD Alliance was made to handle.
ALLIANCE MEMBER: No GRADE: BIf you can’t be Netflix in the 4K streaming race, you’d want to be Amazon. The company supports streaming to TVs from a number of different manufacturers, is producing and releasing shows like Transparent in 4K, and has movies from Sony as well. Better yet, Amazon’s a partner in the high dynamic range Dolby Vision program. We’re tempted to give it a higher grade, but Amazon hasn’t actually announced that it will be releasing Dolby Vision or HDR content anytime soon. And then there’s the matter of the UHD Alliance itself; Amazon isn’t a member, though Vice President of Digital Video Michael Paull says the company is in conversations.
ALLIANCE MEMBER: Yes GRADE: A+There has been no better advocate of 4K than Netflix. The streaming giant was an early partner with Dolby Vision, and has consistently pushed the envelope, bringing 4K HDR streaming later this year. Although its current library of 4K content isn’t huge, the company has made it known more content is coming, and all of its original shows will be shot in 4K going forward.
ALLIANCE MEMBER: No GRADE: IncompleteApple just hasn’t shown up for class. There has been no word about 4K content for iTunes, and no new Apple TV with 4K support. Apple’s invariable move is to make a surprise announcement about its 4K plans, but until it happens, the world’s largest company gets an incomplete.
ALLIANCE MEMBER: No GRADE: CWhile YouTube does support 4K uploads and streaming, Google hasn’t discussed its plans for 4K content on Google Play. The video store may not be the biggest platform out there, but having one of the largest companies sitting quietly on the sidelines isn’t great for the ecosystem.
ALLIANCE MEMBER: No GRADE: DComcast has announced plans to offer 4K content through its Xfinity in UHD app, but thanks to one of those pesky exclusivity deals, the app is only available on Samsung TVs. Combine that with the fact that the company still maintains data caps for some of its users, and it sounds more like Comcast is setting a trap than bringing customers into the future.
ALLIANCE MEMBER: Yes GRADE: CDirecTV previously only offered its 4K content on Samsung TVs in an exclusive deal, and via on demand at that. But the company is loosening those restraints, striking a deal with LG, and recent rumblings indicate that Sony might join up soon too. Even with these changes, though, DirecTV doesn't allow all 4K TVs to get its content, and one- off deals is not where the next generation of TV should be headed.
ALLIANCE MEMBER: No GRADE: BThis year Dish announced the 4K Joey, the company’s new set-top box that will let any UHD television owner watch 4K on-demand. They’re the first satellite provider to go wide with their availability — for DirecTV, it’s still Samsung or nothing. The Ultra HD Joey won’t be shipping until summer, but that’s still the best satellite has to offer.
20th Century Fox
ALLIANCE MEMBER: Yes GRADE: CThis week Fox announced that it would be bringing 4K content to Samsung televisions in an exclusive deal. It’s a welcome move – the more content the better — but services like Netflix have told us they’d be reluctant to add movies and shows that can only be played on a subset of 4K televisions. Kudos are deserved for jumping in the game, but let’s go wide, Fox — exclusivity deals feel so 2014.
ALLIANCE MEMBER: Yes GRADE: BWarner Bros. has largely remained quiet about its plans, but this week it announced it will be bringing movies to streaming services with the HDR Dolby Vision format. It’s a big commitment, and with both Amazon and Netflix lined up as Dolby Vision partners we wouldn’t be surprised to see both services get Warner Bros. movies in 2015. Among the titles Warner Bros. has announced thus far are The Lego Movie and Oblivion — but we caught a glimpse of Godzilla playing in a CES demo as well.
ALLIANCE MEMBER: Yes GRADE: B-Dolby brought the importance of high dynamic range imagery to the forefront when it showed off Dolby Vision last year, and it’s the best iteration of the technology we’ve seen yet. The company is also signed up with Netflix and Amazon, putting it in a prime position should all the pieces come together. Getting them to come together, however, is the issue. Big manufacturers like Sony and Samsung have declined to adopt Dolby Vision, rolling their own HDR solutions instead, and while Warner Bros. is a huge get, it won’t be enough on its own. Dolby may have won the moral victory, but it will take more than that to win the war.