Making good on its previous announcements that it planned to start streaming 4K UltraHD content as early as next year, Netflix has kicked off a trial of the technology with a clip dubbed “El Fuente,” which is a heartbreaking tale of magic and loss.
Well, that may be overstating it. Actually, the over-the-top (OTT) streaming giant is merely testing the waters for now—and the film doesn’t provide much in the way of content viewers would want to watch, other than for the novelty of it all. It’s essentially B-roll footage that the company uses for internal tests. El Fuente is an eight-minute montage video featuring fountains with kids, bicycles and fruit markets. The plot synopsis goes thusly: “El Fuente is an example of 4K at 24 frames per second. El Fuente is an example of 4K at 24 frames per second. El Fuente is an example of 4K at 24 frames per second.”
Naturally, it’s drawn its share of ironic comments.
“This masterpiece can be summed up by the timeless phrase in the opening dialog...’There is no crying in Baseball.’ This surely is...’an example of 24 frames per second,’” wrote one user.
Another gushed, “What else can I say about El Fuente: 24 fps? Powerful, POWERFUL piece of cinema...”
Joking aside though, the random footage testing is part of the process of prepping a real launch of UltraHD early in 2014. As CEO Reed Hastings said during the third-quarter earnings call, Netflix has every intention of being “one of the big suppliers of 4K next year.”
Ultra-high definition is known as 4K because it delivers a resolution that is four times that of 1080p HD. As such, it requires a special display to see the difference (UltraHD TVs are already in the market but are of course still going for thousands of dollars. But there are other challenges besides a lack of an install base that can view the streams.
The most significant of those challenges is the sheer amount of data involved in distributing the content in the first place. Delivery of 4K requires eight times the bandwidth of 1080p, which has significant implications for the production and distribution chains. Many studios and distributors are now testing new tools like high efficiency video coding (HEVC) compression can alleviate some of the delivery overhead for pay-TV providers. For instance, new chipsets from system-on-a-chip (SoC) makers AMD and Broadcom (News - Alert) were unveiled at IBC 2013 that are geared to improve performance for 4K STBs, satellite CPE, home gateways and multiple portable screen types by leveraging HEVC.
Netflix does have an advantage when it comes to another gating factor for 4K investment, which is the fact that there is a lack of an accepted broadcasting and transmission standard that meets the defined UltraHD TV spec—that will hamper 4K efforts for linear television providers like cable and satellite for the time being—giving Netflix an early-mover advantage if it can figure out the digital distribution model from the aforementioned capacity overhead standpoint.
Netflix also has an advantage when it comes to addressing the existing lack of 4K content—a big obstacle to the adoption of 4K TV sets and general uptake by consumers. It has proven itself willing to invest in original content and earlier in the year revealed that it has been shooting existing series, including "House of Cards" in 4K, as a sort of future-proofing effort.
Netflix is wise to jump in now: The mass-market deployment of 4K (a.k.a., UltraHD) is really a case of when and not if, according to Futuresource Consulting, which predicts that 4K sets will grow from shipping just 62,000 units last year to 780,000 by the end of this year, and up to 22 million units in 2017.
And, the ecosystem is beginning to mature. Netflix is not the only one working on UltraHD delivery: satellite capacity providers like Eutelsat are trialing their own 4K delivery channels, while U.K. pay television provider BSkyB (News - Alert) successfully demonstrated what it claims was the world's first satellite broadcast done in 4K back in September at IBC.
Edited by Ryan Sartor