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?”

 

CES 2020 In Pictures

As CES 2020 concludes its run in Las Vegas, let’s take a look back in pictures. Visitors to the show floor saw all sorts of innovative new technologies, from the latest self-driving concept cars to smart homes and smart cities. But for those interested in entertainment, the central hall was the place to be, with major CE manufactures like Samsung, Sony, LG Electronics and TCL exhibiting giant TVs with bigger and better screens and touting both 8K and 5G as taking viewers into the next level of quality home viewership.

WarnerMedia: HBO Max to Enhance Content Appeal with ‘Swipey’ Search

With WarnerMedia in a “quiet period” heading into the May launch of HBO Max, two company executives took to the stage Jan. 7 at CES 2020 in Las Vegas to shed some additional light on the new service.

CTO Jeremy Legg and Andy Forssell, former boss at Hulu and now EVP and GM at WarnerMedia direct-to-consumer, said the new $14.99 SVOD platform would have an enhanced user interface (UI) to help subscribers find and receive content recommendations.

Former Hulu boss Andy Forssell now heads WarnerMedia direct-to-consumer

Legg said Max would attempt to avoid what he characterized as “endless scroll” for users into a more “swipey” experience. The platform is considering presenting myriad content across WarnerMedia brands as Disney+ is doing with Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars and others.

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Netflix wrote the book on content recommendation, becoming the first SVOD service to zero in on subscriber likes and dislikes using software analytics.

Forssell was asked what consumers could expect from Max regarding programming, including original shows and movies.

“If you think about our mission writ large, we have tremendous creative talent at HBO and HBO Max, Warner Bros., Turner networks,” Forssell said. “Their job is to find great creative, find the right audience and the right place for it.”

He said content would be distributed in the appropriate channel, which includes SVOD, theatrical, third-party and old-school linear TV.

“You’ll see things where we’ll decide the right place for it is SVOD and there may be life for it on linear networks or elsewhere,” Forssell said. “You’ll see the reverse as well. You’re going to see it both directions. I think there is as much synergy there, more so than conflict.”

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Max, which is targeting 50 million subs in the first five years, continues to negotiate third-party distribution deals and bundles similar to what Disney+ did with Verizon and bundling Hulu and ESPN+.

“Bundling, when it’s done right, is good for consumers and it’s good for people doing the bundle,” Forssell said. “It makes things stickier. You can bet that we’ll be aggressive.”

When asked if the executives worry about first-day tech glitches that impacted Disney+ on its debut, both said they anticipate issues but that the company already has a proven track record with HBO Now.

Legg said HBO Now was able to accommodate 4.7 million concurrent streams of the final “Game of Thrones” episode, which he believes should help Max avoid tech issues.

 

CES 2020 Alphabet Soup: 8K, QLED, 5G Look to Up Profiles

In a world gone streaming mad for video, the 52nd annual CES Jan. 7-10 in Las Vegas promises myriad technological updates and hype for the consumption of video in greater resolution (8K) and across enhanced wireless (5G) networks, among other marketing improvements.

More than 4,500 exhibitors will launch nearly 20,000 new tech products to more than 170,000 attendees, encompassing 5G, artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, smart cities and resilience, sports, robotics and more.

The trade show will feature new and expanded exhibit areas, 300 conference sessions with 1,100 speakers, and more than 1,200 startups from 45+ countries.

On the home entertainment front, expect media companies such as ViacomCBS, Disney and WarnerMedia, among others, to negotiate embedding proprietary streaming services into connected devices such TV and tablets.

“Eventually, all of these services will work with everything,” said Michael Pachter, media analyst with Wedbush Securities in Los Angeles.

Pachter remains doubtful TV manufactures will rush to embed digital video games since he said it still takes a Chromecast stick to work the Google-owned Stadia game streaming system.

Stadia is the biggest effort yet by tech to take on Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft in video games.

Closer to home, Pachter said he’s looking for a big screen TV with the Disney+ streaming service embedded.

“I have a 65-inch Samsung LED TV that doesn’t work with Disney+,” he said. “Bought it in 2015, and it isn’t upgradeable, apparently. Gonna have to buy another [Amazon] Fire TV or Chromecast to make it work.”

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Meanwhile, Sharp Electronics is set to return to CES with an exhibit showcasing the latest installments in its evolving ecosystem of products and services that leverage the benefits of Ultra-HD 8K video and advanced 5G wireless technology.

What that actually means for consumers is questionable. 4K, which is now the standard resolution format in most TVs marketed at retail, continues to underwhelm when it comes to broadcast content — unlike 4k UHD Blu-ray content. 8K programming, it seems, will likely be limited to video games, the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

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Regardless, Sharp’s 8K+5G Ecosystem at CES will include a drone-mounted system developed in conjunction with various external stakeholders for the real-time capture and transmission of 8K footage for purposes including racehorse training and infrastructure surveys. It’s one of various cross-disciplinary collaborations currently undergoing trials in order to bring the practical benefits of 8K and 5G directly to businesses and consumers.

“We are conducting trials with a range of external partners, all with the aim of realizing a comprehensive 8K+5G ecosystem as soon as possible,” Bob Ishida, EVP and head of ICT Group, said in a statement. “And as our CES exhibit will show, we firmly believe that, in conjunction with the introduction of 5G, our 8K technology can make a major contribution to the society of the future.”

Samsung, a major player at CES, broke ranks from the traditional CES media day (Jan. 6 ending with Sony Electronics’ 49th product showcase) unveiling a bezel-less 8K QLED TV (Q950TS) model on Jan. 4. Bezel is the perimeter space around a TV screen.

Irvine, Calif.-based Vizio launched its first QLED TV available in 55-inch and 65-inch models. LG Electronics unveiled a line of “Real 8K TV” models that consumers can presumably afford and the company claims will help it surpass Samsung.

The company also bowed a new Vizio Elevate Sound Bar, along with new M-Series and V-Series sound bar lines pairing higher audio performance at every price point with a simple user interface.

The Elevate Sound Bar includes auto-rotating speakers for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X content. The M-Series brings Dolby Atmos and DTS:X to a variety of accessible configurations.

The 2020 models offer a more intuitive user interface with select models receiving backlit remotes, better wireless connections through Bluetooth 5.0, HDMI inputs for added convenience, and HDMI 2.1 inputs with eARC support in premium models.

“We’re announcing the most competitive and immersive sound bar series we’ve ever launched,” said CTO Bill Baxter. “Not only do our sound bars bring a design and finish that stands out from the rest of the market, but we’re providing new levels of audio performance and ease-of-use to every price point.”

5G Going Mainstream?

Delivering data 20 times faster than 4G, the new 5G network boasts lower latency and massive capacity that will allow it to handle not only current devices, but also emerging technologies such as autonomous cars and connected home products.

How that translates to home entertainment is unclear. That’s because 5G is made for wireless products such as mobile phones and tablets. Whether the new technology means greater consumption of video on portable devices depends whether the average consumer wants to watch TV shows and movies on a small screen rather than on a huge screen in the home.

It also depends when telephone manufacturers roll out 5G-compatible units. Indeed, it is estimated that by 2022, 5G phones will only account for less than 50% of all phone units shipped in the United States.