Media Mix, Oct. 13, 2019

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the development and marketing of 4K and 8K television sets. I say “set” in the traditional sense, meaning an appliance that incorporates both a display and a tuner, though many modern consumer TVs don’t include tuners owing to various factors, the most obvious one being the range of source signals available. You can now watch TV shows that originate via terrestrial radio waves, satellite feeds, cable input, and internet connections, and while there are TVs that are easily capable of handling all of these functions, they each require other devices to make them work, such as satellite dishes, wi-fi routers, cable boxes, as well as subscriptions with the various operators who provide these services. It can become quite complicated, and the area immediately surrounding your display can start to look like a snake pit of cables and connections. Also, most people now buy recorders, which have tuners built in.

I mention this because the main thrust of the column is that home electronics manufacturers are always looking for new things to sell, because replacing old devices was once a proven money-maker. You bought a TV and upgraded when new models promised better picture quality, and that is what 4K and 8K provide. However, as technology improves picture (and sound) reproduction, the opportunity to profit from upgrades also becomes more complicated. For sure, no one longs for the days of CRTs and video tapes. Even the picture quality on an iPhone is better than any you could get on the highest-grade, largest-screen TV set sold 20 years ago. The reason 4K and the theoretically four-times-better 8K went on the market almost simultaneously has more to do with technological development than economics. For sure, manufacturers and retailers seem to be in a fix trying to sell both, because logic says that they should be touting 8K as the best thing available, though from my own observation the quality advantages of both modes can only be fully appreciated on very large screens—at least 55 inches. Personally, I don’t have the room in my home for that big a display, so 2K is still just fine for me. Salespeople have their work cut out for them.

And as I said at the end of the piece, content and consumers’ relation to content will really determine what kinds of devices people buy. Young people don’t watch conventional television much any more, and TV companies have had to adjust to a certain extent. Until 20 years ago, content on TV was restricted by certain economic and technological realities, but no more. TV is the rival of cinema in terms of narrative content, and in many cases surpasses movies. But that doesn’t necessarily mean people stop going to movie theaters because they can watch the same films at home on large displays. It simply means there are so many choices that each mode of viewing has to share an audience with another mode of viewing, whether it be a movie screen, a TV display, or a smart phone. The development of technology both drives and confounds this diversity of choice, and those who want to profit off of it are still struggling with ways of making it work for them. It’s no longer a simple question of planned obsolescence. It’s niche marketing gone ballistic.

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