Amazon's 4K trifecta may push the technology out of novelty status

Josh Wein, FierceOnlineVideoAmazon's (Nasdaq: AMZN) recent announcement that it will shoot its new series in 4K is a big development for the technology and might help it avoid some of the problems that helped doom 3D TV. There's no guarantee 4K will succeed. But Amazon's recent vote of confidence in it bodes well.

Amazon is in a unique position to help shepherd 4K from its place today as a novelty and hoped-for savior of the TV-set manufacturers to a mainstream consumer product. It can produce 4K content, offer it directly to plenty of consumers through Prime Instant Video, and push 4K TV sets to visitors on Amazon.com.

That's a big difference from 3D, where production, distribution and retail were all segregated. Each element of the business needed to make substantial investments to accommodate 3D. Production crews had to upgrade their equipment to shoot in HD. TV networks and pay-TV distributors also had to invest to aggregate it and get it to consumers and TV-set makers, and retailers had to put significant resources behind manufacturing and promoting sets. Though there were some efforts to get 3D off the ground on all fronts, no one wanted to be left holding the bag. The resulting gridlock--and the fact that 3D TV didn't make a compelling home-entertainment product--led to its failure. With 4K, Amazon can bring most of those three elements under one roof.

The company is also in a unique position to monitor consumer interest in 4K TV sets. It sells them at Amazon.com, and it can presumably keep tabs on how frequently visitors research the specs on new sets. If consumer interest picks up, it can respond quickly by investing even more in programming.

Amazon isn't the only one pushing 4K. Next month at CES, TV-set makers will hype the technology relentlessly. But unlike individual manufacturers, Amazon can doesn't care what brand a consumer purchases to watch 4K video. While its videos are exclusive to Prime subscribers, those subscribers could use a Sony, Samsung, LG or even the long-rumored Apple set, connected to a Comcast, Verizon or RCN network to watch them.

Of course, just because Amazon is making programming in 4K doesn't mean it will be any good. Critical response to its first two comedies, "Alpha House" and "Betas" has been mixed. It has an impressive-sounding list of drama pilots lined up for 2014 but so far has failed to amass the kind of praise its rival Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) has won for its slate of exclusive series.

And while Amazon may play a role in the retail, content-production and content-aggregation aspects of the business, it still must rely on broadband providers to deliver its 4K content to subscribers. Today, even HD video can arrive on viewers' sets with buffering and noticeable artifacts of video-compression software. Consumers seem to tolerate these problems today. With bitrates for 4K hitting up to 50 Mbps using current encoding technology, it's an open question whether and when streaming video providers like Amazon will be able to provide a reliable, over-the-top 4K experience.

But it has a leg up over linear TV networks, which would need far more programming to fill up a traditional network schedule and convince a traditional pay-TV distributor to carry it.. By offering 4K video on demand, Amazon can assure viewers that any time they turn on the TV, they can watch something in 4K.--Josh

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