Just how important is Netflix 4K? The streaming service made tech headlines when it became the first content provider to offer subscribers honest-to-goodness native 4K programming earlier this year.
Suddenly light could be seen flickering at the end of that Ultra HD content tunnel. All you needed in order to bathe in it was a shiny new second gen 2014 4K UHD TV with onboard HEVC decoder and a fast fibre broadband connection. Well, that was the theory…
But it seems that not all HEVC equipped 2014 4K TVs can handle Netflix 4K after all.
Panasonic has exclusively confided to TechRadar that its ravishingly spec'd AX800 UHD screens, unveiled earlier this year at its European Dealer Convention, and now heading out into retail, can't do Netflix 4K – and never will.
The astonishing news was broken to me by marketing director Simon Parkinson. "It's unfortunate," he told me with some understatement, "but we won't be able to offer Netflix 4K on this particular model."
It can't be certified, he explained, because of some unspecified shortcoming of set's HEVC decoder chip configuration. Well no one saw that coming - at least no one in Osaka.
A big deal?
I've no doubt that this news would have been received like a hammer blow by Panasonic executives.
Netflix 4K was heavily touted by key rivals LG, Samsung and Sony back at the 2014 International CES.
CEO Reed Hastings cameo'd at several TV launch events, ebullient at his 4K advance. When I later quizzed Yuki Kusumi, director of Panasonic's TV business division, about Netflix status on the new 4K models he was (now understandably) guarded.
But is the lack of Netflix 4K on Panasonic's Freetime-equipped 4K screens really that big a deal? TV product manager Craig Cunningham doesn't believe so.
"With 4K Blu-ray, Sky 4K and other services potentially launching, and the ability to view 4K video content shot on a Panasonic GH4 system camera, I believe there will soon be plenty of native content available," he told me.
He could well be right. Ultimately, live sports and blockbuster movies are going to be the key driver for the ultra high resolution TV standard. Even Netflix admits it isn't planning a 4K content flood anytime soon.
Greg Peters, Netflix chief streaming and partnerships officer, says 4K viewership is likely to remain small and content offerings limited for some time. "The numbers are small because we're talking about the universe of 4K TVs which have been shipped so far. It's not a huge number," he told TechRadar "but it'll get exponentially larger over time."
One to watch
And when it comes to content acquisition, he adds, the options are actually quite limited: "It's fairly early days when it comes to understanding what the end product will be. When it comes to movies, you'll see a small handful of remastered titles. With any new format, studios are trying to figure out how they incrementally monetize, how to make it (4K) look good."
TV fare is potentially more promising, he hints. "We're doing some 4K licensing, Breaking Bad is a pretty good example from Sony, and we have picked-up some eye-candy documentary content that really show off the capabilities of these displays. We'll also do all our originals shows that will benefit from that quality. It won't be a lot."
Of course, it's too early to tell just how important Netflix will be to mass 4K adoption. Remember none of 2013's 4K TV launches could offer the service either.
But if the lack of Netflix 4K on the new X800 model is a deal-breaker, Panasonic pledges that it's flagship X900 Series TVs, due to be officially launched at the IFA tech fest in Berlin this September, won't suffer from the same chip-astrophe. According to Cunningham the models, the first to supposedly offer better than plasma image quality, will "definitely" be Netflix 4K ready.
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