Why Isn't Cable TV In 4K?

Why Isn't Cable TV In 4K?

Dude, where's my 4K TV? I mean, sure, you can go out and buy a 4K TV set for cheap. But if you subscribe to cable or satellite, there just isn't that much 4K content available despite the astronomical monthly bill.

All the major streaming services, though, offer a fair amount in 4K.  So, why is it so tough for a traditional TV to be in 4K?

Maybe we should answer this question with another question, who cares? Don't get me wrong. 4K is objectively better than standard HD, all other things being equal. But a huge reason we don't have 4K everywhere is because the traditional content providers simply don't think there's enough demand for it.

In fact, the CEO of Sinclair Broadcast Group, which operates the second-largest number of TV stations in the United States, has called 4K an incremental benefit that's not a big driver for demand.

And although many of us tech lovers might cry foul over this take, there are lots of people out there that just don't see much of a difference, especially if they sit far enough away from their TVs. Instead, broadcasters are interested in getting 1080p at 60 frames a second feeds to us, especially for revenue generating sports events where the high frame rates can really make a difference.

HDR also seems to be a bigger focus for content providers, as they believe the brighter colors and higher contrast of an HDR picture makes a bigger visual impact on the average consumer than switching to 4K does.

But the lack of 4K content isn't just a function of the perception that consumers don't care about it. It's actually surprisingly difficult for broadcasters and networks to even produce 4K content.

But hold on, you can shoot 4K 60 video on a phone these days. So why is it so hard for these big money studios?  The content that's hardest to produce in 4K is actually the same content that's keeping cable and satellite TV afloat financially, live events, like sports.

Unlike movies and TV series that are often easier to access on a non-cable streaming service, live events require lots of expensive, specialized equipment. Even though both live events and other content, like movies, are commonly shot with 4K cameras, live sports require additional lenses that can shoot fast action at a distance. Long strips of costly active wiring and an entire production truck that has to be outfitted with gear that can quickly sync, edit, and transmit all that 4K footage to be broadcast.

Add it all up, and that's many millions of dollars that broadcasters simply do not want to sink into what they perceive to be a marginal improvement over standard HD.

Even if we're not talking about live events, shooting shows or movies in 4K also require additional infrastructure for editing, reviewing, and managing all that content. Newer streaming services, like Apple TV, got started with 4K in mind. But legacy television networks have to make larger investments in 4K to get it out to the consumer, replacing gear that's working perfectly fine. There are also still technical restrictions even if a network does have 4K content ready to go.

Although a cable network can get you gigabit internet these days, the portion of the pipe that's reserved for digital cable already is quite crowded and 4K takes up much more space than typical HD channels. So, having a wide range of 4K offerings might force providers into cutting more channels than they're willing to stomach.

But what if you just got a few 4K channels over an antenna and stream everything else? Well, the new ATSC 3.0 standard for over-the-air TV is 4K capable, but that doesn't mean the stations that use it are broadcasting tons of actual 4K content. And TVs that support it aren't quite ubiquitous yet. So bottom line, it may still be awhile before 4K is everywhere. 

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