Closing Thoughts — and Shots — on CES 2020

Moments after my obligatory Facebook posting of pictures from my visit to CES 2020, industry veteran Gary Khammar — who for 10 years, from 1980 to 1990, was EVP at RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Entertainment, the precursor to Sony Pictures Home Entertainment — commented, “How many CES shows have you attended in your career? The number must be pretty high by now.”

I responded, “27,” but it might be 28. All I know is I recently received my 25-year pin from the kind folks at the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), who produce the annual show. Looking back, I can still remember roaming the show floor and checking out the latest VCRs, and then this new disc-based technology called CD-I, which let you watch movies on disc. It was sort of the 8-track of home entertainment: you had to break up a movie onto two separate discs, and the blacks weren’t very, well, black.

Then came DVD, and a flurry of exciting home entertainment news at each year’s show — the initial battle with Divx, a pay-per-play variant, and Warren Lieberfarb, the father of DVD, following me in the hallway of the Las Vegas Convention Center to bemoan the format’s slow launch. Making the encounter all the more tragic was that Lieberfarb was hobbling about on a cane, due to a broken foot.

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A year later, it was a whole other story. Divx was gone, and Lieberfarb had ditched the cane and was all smiles — a rarity, colleagues of the former Warner Home Video chief will tell you. DVD had become the biggest consumer electronics launch in history, and the whole home entertainment industry was reveling in joy — and dollars.

Then came the big television revolution. We went from boxy TVs that maxed out at 27 inches to giant flat screens with a constantly improving picture quality. With the advent of high-definition, the DVD was no longer good enough, and I remember how the ensuing format war between HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc was played out at CES. Driving to Las Vegas in January 2007, I kept having to pull over and interview studio presidents who were lining up in one camp or the other, and I remember the flurry of press conferences at that year’s show that led to many a late-night writing session, trying to keep it all straight.

No sooner had the format war been settled than CES became the launching pad for yet another generation of new and improved TVs. But the 4K launch was spectacularly unspectacular — not because of the technology, but, rather, because the hardware was launched without anyone bothering to get the studios on board first.

A year or two later, the studios did jump in, but they decided “4K” wasn’t sexy enough so they rolled out a new acronym, UHD, for “ultra high-definition,” followed, later, by an additional acronym, “UHD with HDR,” HDR standing for high dynamic range. Not surprisingly, the expected excitement over yet another new format was tempered by consumer confusion over what, exactly, it was called.

After many meetings and discussions it was decided to restore the 4K name to the software, initially known as UHD Blu-ray Discs but subsequently rebranded as 4K Ultra HD.

Today, 4K UHD TVs remain on the upswing, accounting for 44% of all TVs shipped in 2019, according to the CTA. And 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs are selling remarkably well — still climbing, while the overall disc market remains in a state of decline.

But in the four years since the 4K Ultra HD discs were launched at CES 2016, the show itself has become increasingly irrelevant for those of us on the content side of the business, as the focus has shifted toward innovation and technology. One analyst even noted in an interview that CES was now one of the country’s biggest car shows, a showcase for connectivity and autonomous driving.

Last year’s CES once again saw the launch of a new and improved TV, 8K — again, with no software support.  The first 8K TVs went on sale later in 2019, and at the just-concluded CES 2020, the central hall  was dominated by massive 8K displays by huge CE concerns such as Panasonic, Sony, Samsung and TCL — as well as smaller players like Sharp and Hisense.

There were debates over which variant is better, QLED or OLED, while Samsung executives talked up Serto, a TV that flips from horizontal to vertical so viewers can watch portrait-mode content (presumably, commercials, and woe to any vase or bauble that might get in the way when the TV automatically rotates).

Samsung also touted how streaming-friendly its TVs are, thanks to Samsung TV Plus.

But there was not a peep from Hollywood about 8K content on disc — or digital, for that matter.

Whatever happened to the concept that content is “king?”

 

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