WHY CAN’T WE HAVE NICE THINGS: Where’s all the 4K OTA, 2019 edition

Let’s get a few things out in the open here. If you’re reading this blog you’re an enthusiast. You’re the cream of the crop. You probably bought your first HDTV when they were $10,000, and you’ve traded up to better and better TVs every few years since. You’re reading this article on your top-of-the-line phone while watching a flawless, huge, 4K HDR television.

And you’re wondering why you’re still watching nothing but HD. Brother, I get you.

It all starts with over-the-air broadcasting, that’s why.

The key to getting 4K TV channels is getting 4K over the air. This is what we saw with HD. You may not have been aware of it unless you were in a major city, but HD really started taking hold once you saw TV stations actually adopting it back in 2004-2005. This was the real driver of HD programming. And it all happened very differently back then.

Back then, there was support from Congress for the new digital broadcasting technologies. There was a structured plan in place for making sure that there were HD tuners in TVs and that consumers didn’t have a choice but to move forward. That may seem kind of overbearing, but the fact is it worked.

Compare that to how things are today. 4K adoption is optional and we’re just now seeing some of the larger companies do some trial broadcasts. There are officially zero televisions with 4K over-the-air tuners and there’s no plan to force manufacturers to put them in.

Pay TV can only go so far without support from the broadcast networks.

People want content, and quality is secondary most of the time. There are only so many videos you can watch to say “wow look at the great picture on my TV.” You want stuff you want to watch. And right now, despite all the attention paid to premium cable channels, broadcast networks still rule. People who watch TV, watch the broadcast networks. Believe it or not, that’s still true.

If you take a look at Nielsen’s site, you’ll see that broadcast television still dominates over most cable shows. Sure, sports or special events will break in once in a while, but it’s really broadcast TV that delivers the most viewers week after week.

The point is you won’t see this massive number of 4K channels on pay TV until the over-the-air networks do it first. That’s how it worked before and that’s how it’s going to work again.

You may want 4K TV, but does everyone?

One big lesson from the move to HD was that people liked HDTVs but didn’t always care if the programming was in HD. Everything looks better on an HDTV, even older programs. Until recently it was very common to find SD programming on HDTVs. Super-stretch-o-vision was the rule of the day for most people. Cable companies put HD channels on high numbers and kept SD easy to find. They also gave people puny DVRs that wouldn’t hold a lot of HD programs.

The sad thing is most people couldn’t tell the difference between SD and HD anyway. That’s going to be even more common with 4K. People at least noticed that HD was wide while SD wasn’t. But 4K looks just like HD for most people, especially at a distance more than a few feet.

Today we have a challenge we didn’t have in the 2000s, and that’s streaming. There are plenty of people who watch TV on their phones and in that case they just don’t care about 4K. Converting to 4K is a big expense and content providers usually want to know that it’s worth it. For a decent chunk of people, it isn’t.

This all sounds pretty dire. Does that mean we’ll never get 4K over-the-air, or anywhere?

Luckily, it doesn’t. I think we will see 4K over the air. The technology is available and it’s going to happen sooner or later. I just think it’s going to happen later. Don’t worry that your current TV doesn’t have a 4K tuner (it doesn’t, I promise) because you’ll probably replace it by the time 4K goes mainstream. If I had to guess, that would be about 2025. Meantime, sit back and enjoy the best that TV has to offer by watching DIRECTV’s 4K selection. It isn’t much, but it’s likely to be what you’ll get for a while.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.