Back in my Junior High days, I had the occasion to visit the house of a friend who lived in a small town in rural Illinois. We weren’t particularly good friends. All these years later I can’t say I remember his name, or even what he looked like. What was memorable about those trips was my friend’s father, a veteran of World War II, who had spent most of his service as a prisoner of war in Germany. By the time I knew him, he spent most of his time in his recliner, in front of his Zenith console television, Space Command remote control in one hand, a beer in the other.
There are three things I remember about that television.
The first is that seems like Hogan’s Heroes was the only show it received. At least it was always on when I was there. The old man would sit there in his chair, and shout at the television, “It wasn’t like that, damn it! I was there!” He hated that show, but never missed it.
The second thing that stands out was the remote. The Space Command was the first wireless remote. It worked via ultrasonics. It was just above the range of human hearing, but not at such a high frequency dogs couldn’t hear it, and it drove his two dogs crazy. When his dogs got crazy, they’d fight right there by the television. When they’d fight, their dog tags would clang together, and quite often that clanging noise would be at the right frequency to change the channel on the television. Of course, that would mean the channel would have to be changed back, and the remote would drive the dogs crazy all over again….circle of life.
What I really remember about that television was the color. It was awful. The flesh tones were either bright pink or sickly green. Sometimes, when the old guy went off to either get another beer, or get rid of his last one, I’d sneak up and adjust the hue control to where the flesh tones were natural, and crank down the chroma to a realistic level. Every time I did that, the old guy, upon his return, would undo my good work, and return the controls to their wretched normal.
I thought about that television a couple weeks back, when the news out of the NAB show was a breathless litany of 4K! 4K!! 4K!!! And, make no mistake, 4K is a wonderful thing. That’s not in doubt. What is in doubt is the market for it. Sure, the AMC and Sony theater chains are committed to 4K, but that’s fewer than 15,000 screens nationwide. The majority of digital projectors in theaters are 2K, and will be for some time. So, where will all this great 4K content play out? Broadcast? Not likely. Remember that old Zenith console? It sucked for a reason. Face it….broadcast and cable television have never been at the forefront of technology. While Europe had television with higher resolution and real color, we had NTSC (Never The Same Color) to ensure compatibility with black and white sets. The roll out of High Def was slow and painful here, and many stations are only 720p. It’s unlikely that a broadcast industry that had to be dragged kicking and screaming to HD is going peacefully into the 4K world.
Does that sound a bit hopeless? Maybe, but the situation really isn’t that bad. 4K doesn’t really need movie screens or broadcast. In today’s media landscape, we don’t have to wait for broadcasters and the feds to hammer out the minutia of some arcane standard. We don’t have to wait for manufactures to have protracted debates on disc formats. Like Hogan’s Heros and the Space Command remote, all that is history. Though they received less attention than the other shiny metal objects, there were a lot of 4K monitors on display at NAB, and at prices that have come down substantially from the 2013 CES. Those prices will continue to drop. Sony has committed to 4K for the PS4, and Microsoft is likely to do the same for the next X-Box. It’s worth noting neither of those platforms will have 4K for gaming, just for content. One doesn’t have to work too hard to imagine Apple, Roku or Amazon coming out with 4K set-top boxes at reasonable price points. None of that is unthinkable. Not only could all of that happen, but it could happen more quickly than producers could adequately gear up for meeting the demand for 4K content. And that’s a really scary thought.
If all this change has you reeling, take comfort. Even as some things change, others stay the same. The television may be 4K, but you’ll still want that recliner. You’ll want a beer in one hand and a remote in the other. A couple dogs are always good companions. And yelling at your set will never improve the content, even at 4K.