4K

Who's leading the pack in 4K TV sales? China

March 5, 2014: 9:26 AM ET

Ultra high-resolution "4K" technology was supposed to revive the television business. What people didn't expect: That growth would come from China.

By Peter Suciu

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FORTUNE -- Lately, shipments and sales of televisions are about as flat as the sets. According to the market research firm TrendForce, panel shipments for TVs amounted to just 65.07 million units in January, dropping 12% month-to-month.

The one bright side for the industry? Next-generation display technology called 4K -- it's also known as Ultra-HDTV or UHD -- is poised to take off in 2014, bringing four times the resolution to the screen. But it isn't America that is leading the way.

It's China.

NPD Group's DisplaySearch forecast that China will account for 78% of the 4K TV market, which is actually down from an 87% share in 2013. In 2014, China will lead all other regions combined by a factor of three. Even as other regions begin catch-up, China will remain the leading region for 4K TV shipments next year.

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"There is going to be growth in the rest of the market, but the Chinese growth dwarfs everything else," Paul Gagnon, director for global TV research at NPD DisplaySearch, told Fortune. "Most regions are seeing double-digit growth in 2014 over 2013."

The primary driver is the rapid consumerization underway in the country, Gagnon said. "There are actually two groups of TV buyers in China," he said. "There is the rural region where people might not even have a TV, and then there are the well-to-do urban households where they might own two flat panel TVs. That urban market is now replacing the TVs at a more rapid rate than what we've seen in the United States."

In the United States, 4K remains very much in the early adopter phase due to high prices. In China, it has essentially become mass market.

"There are a few causes for this," said Joel Espelien, senior analyst for display technology at The Diffusion Group. "The Chinese video market is a lot younger so there is less of an install base, while in the United States and Western Europe you have a wildly saturated market where people are very much now only buying new TVs as a replacement."

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Chinese manufacturers have taken notice. Previously, the newest and most advanced models might have been pushed to developed markets in North America and Western Europe. Now, Chinese TV makers including TCL and Hisense are happy to control the marketplace in their own backyard. "On the global scale, China is incredibly important for the sale of 4K TVs," Jonathan Frank, vice president of marketing at Hisense USA said. "We are seeing the largest adoption and growth in China, and there is much more readily available 4K content, which in turn drives sales."

China will always be a primary part of the Hisense strategy, but the U.S. will be a close second, Frank said. Which means Chinese manufacturers may be able to drive down prices for the expensive technology, accelerating its push into the mainstream in developed markets. "Hisense has always stood for 'attainable technology,'" Frank stressed. "Having said that, with 4K being a relatively new technology there is no reason to enter the 'race to zero' yet."

Today, 4K TVs are about three to four times the price of a regular HDTV set in the U.S. In China, 4K sets are about 30% higher. "The cost to produce 4K is not four times," Gagnon said. "So the ability to make them cheaper now already exists. What we are seeing is that the top-tier brands have more features, but this is a new category that comes with a high price and for the manufacturers provides a high profit."

Which means the MSRP is likely to fall.

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"There is nothing to stop the eroding price," Espelien said. "These sets merely have the next-gen chipsets and the latest glass, so the prices will fall especially if the Chinese can build volumes of sale. It is still going to remain a premium product for the time being, and it won't be in the lowest end sets at Costco, but Chinese 4K sets will drive the price down."

The 4K push could help establish Hisense as a major player in the U.S. market. But it isn't clear that a Chinese brand will be able to emerge quite as successfully as South Korea's Samsung and LG were able to over the past decade. "The Chinese market isn't going to look like that," Espelien said. "It is too fragmented, and the strongest Chinese electronics brand, Lenovo, isn't a big player in TVs. So the biggest brand isn't even competing in the U.S. right now."

There remain hurdles. 4K technology requires high-resolution content to match. Without it, most consumers won't see the benefit. Worse, cheaper 4K sets may not handle today's Full HD 1080p content very well, and perhaps worse than today's sets -- not exactly a selling point for the consumer.

"There are more pixels on the screen so content needs to be upconverted," Gagnon said. "The quality of that upconversion matters a lot. The low end sets might not handle it as well, and as a result, a low-end 4K set might not look as good as decent 1080p set."

Here, too, is where China could have a leg up on the U.S.

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"The traditional pay-TV market in China is less entrenched," Espelien said. "But in China people are watching TV online, where 4K is picking up steam. That potentially helps the market even more."

The irony, said the professional TV calibrator and TV industry consultant Kevin Miller, is that the 4K resolution is all the industry is really talking about. "Resolution is what everyone is excited about," he said. "I don't even like to call these 4K, as that only addresses the resolution. It is actually the least important part. These UHD sets will have better bit depth, and that is going to be so much more important than just four times the resolution."

Picture quality on a television is also determined by a set's ability to produce deep black levels and a strong contrast ratio. "It is in these areas where you'll really see the difference," Miller said. "Frankly, the best 2K [1080p] displays can destroy the early 4K sets in picture quality. But resolution is what they can hang their hat on."

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