UHD is TV’s next big thing. So why is the industry divided?

We’ve had gigantic TVs, curved TVs, 3D TVs, even TVs that can bend with the press of a button. TV makers tend to bring all their latest gimmicks to one-up each other at the annual CES show in Las Vegas. But this year, the industry had something to show off that consumers may actually want: better-looking images.

Collectively, the industry has decided to double down on 4K, and also make each and every pixel look better. Samsung, Sony, LG, TCL and others all showed off 4K TV sets with high-dynamic range (HDR) at the show. HDR gives TV sets whiter whites, blacker blacks and a lot more contrast in between, which results in pictures that not only look brighter, but also expose a lot of details that would otherwise get lost or appear washed out. I’ve had a chance to see a few HDR-capable TV sets at CES, and have to say that they looked pretty stunning.

Samsung's SUHD TV, unveiled at CES by Joe Stinziano, the company's executive vice president of home entertainment .
Samsung’s SUHD TV, unveiled at CES by Joe Stinziano, the company’s executive vice president of home entertainment .

A lot of TV manufacturers are working on ways to extend the dynamic range of their TV sets with a variety of methods (check this CNET story for a comparison of some of the different approaches), and everyone has their own terminology that goes along with it. Samsung likes to call 4K TVs with extended dynamic range SUHD TVs, Sony has X-tended Dynamic Range, and Panasonic apparently likes to call it Dynamic Range Remaster.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that 4K itself isn’t really called 4K anymore. Instead, most companies have settled on UHD, which stands for ultra-high definition — but Samsung and many others would like you to believe that their UHD is better than others by throwing HDR and other technologies in the mix.

An alliance of frenemies

Confused? You’re not alone — and that’s alarming to Hollywood. Movie studios have long tried to get people to buy their products again, as opposed to just renting them, or waiting before they appear on Netflix. The industry’s hopes that 3D would revitalize home entertainment were crushed by — well, mostly those dorky glasses. Now, it’s hoping that HDR will do the trick, and that consumers may be willing to pay more if their movies look even better.

That’s why Disney, Fox and Warner Bros. were among the founding members of the UHD Alliance, a new industry consortium unveiled at CES last week. The goal of the alliance is to establish new standards for 4K and HDR, amongst other things. Founding members also include Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp and Sony, as well as Netflix and Directv, Dolby and Technicolor. Members have not only committed to coming up with a standard, but also promoting it to consumers, and telling them what UHD is all about.

[pullquote person=”” attribution=”” id=”905997″]Samsung and many others would like you to believe that their UHD is better than others by throwing HDR and other technologies in the mix.[/pullquote]

The problem with that is that some of these members have very different ideas for UHD. Dolby, for one, thinks that the common standard everyone is looking for already exists: The company heavily promoted its own Dolby Vision technology at CES, and it aims to be part of the entire ecosystem. Dolby wants to provide studios with post-production tools to preserve the extended dynamic range that is already being recorded by today’s Red cameras and others, encode it, and then deliver it to Dolby Vision-certified TVs.

Not everyone likes Dolby

Not everyone in the industry likes the idea of paying Dolby yet another licensing fee, which is why (privately, at least) some are voicing the hope that the UHD alliance may come with a license-free approach, or at least chose a solution that may be less expensive. Some of those concerns even overtly made it into in the alliance’s CES press release, which called for “embracing standards that are open and allow flexibility in the market.”

Dolby’s Director of Business Strategies Zaved Shamsuddin seemed confident when I quizzed him about this. HDR solutions may be popping up like mushrooms, but few of them will survive, he argued: “As with any fungus, it has a life span, and then it dies.”

What’s next for HDR

Dolby has thus far partnered with Philips, Hisense, Toshiba and TCL to build Dolby Vision-certified TVs, but the biggest names in the business — Samsung and LG — are notably absent from that list. The company has also struck an agreement with Warner Bros. to deliver some movies in HDR, and Netflix, Amazon and Vudu have signed on to stream Dolby Vision content.

But even at Netflix, there seem to be concerns that the industry may not get HDR right. Neil Hunt, the company’s chief product officer, told me at the show that he believes HDR to be “a more significant innovation that 4K,” arguing that simply adding more pixels to the screen eventually gets pointless. “We kind of ran out of more pixels to add,” Hunt quipped.

Netflix has committed to produce some of its content in HDR this year, but the company has stayed away from saying which shows that will be, in part because there simply is no standard yet. Hunt cautioned that Netflix doesn’t want to support a huge number of competing HDR standards, but seemed resigned to the fact that the industry may not come up with one single solution. Asked how many HDR standards Netflix would be able and willing to support, Hunt said: “Two is probably okay.”

The UHD alliance meanwhile hasn’t set a roadmap for the introduction of its standard, and it’s members haven’t actually had a formal meeting yet. With that in mind, one shouldn’t expect a common UHD standard any time soon. Then again, that may not stop consumers from buying TVs that offer far superior picture qualities when compared to previous-year’s models.

And when it comes to buzzwords, there’s always CES 2016.