High dynamic range (HDR) picture technology can transform the TV viewing experience. If you’ve got a TV able to do it justice, all that extra HDR contrast, brightness and color is just irresistible. In fact, Netflix reckons it’s so irresistible that subscribers will be willing to cough up substantially more hard cash to watch it.
It’s emerged via CNET that Netflix users are starting to see a new $16.99 (or 16.99 Euro) ’Ultra’ subscription tier that essentially hives HDR playback out of the current top level Premium subscription, leaving that Premium tier only supporting 4K as its top quality picture quality option.
Netflix has confirmed the introduction of the Ultra tier, though claims that it’s only there on a trial basis right now.
The nature and cost (it’s around 20% more expensive than the current Premium tier) of the 4K/HDR Ultra trial tier reveals that Netflix is pretty decided now about whether offering a 4K resolution or high dynamic range support has more impact on the quality of its video streams.
Even a small price hike for HDR would have been telling in this respect, but betting on people being willing to pay substantially more for HDR shows how important the technology now is to Netflix’s strategy.
As a result, I’d imagine we can expect pretty much everything Netflix makes from now on to launch in HDR (provided they can get access to the TV industry’s currently much-in-demand mastering facilities).
Another intriguing aspect of Netflix’s on-trial new pricing approach is that in some ways, at least, delivering 4K is actually tougher than delivering HDR. Netflix stated when it first introduced HDR that adding the industry standard HDR10 HDR format, at least, added precious little to the bandwidth of its video streams. Adding Dolby Vision HDR, with its extra layer of scene by scene data, may require a bit more bandwidth. But even Dolby Vision won’t be anything like as data hungry as 4K is. And that’s helpful to Netflix at every stage of its content creation process, from capture, editing and effects through to final online distribution.
This combination of 4K’s relatively challenging production and distribution issues and HDR’s seemingly much higher perceived picture quality value raises the possibility of Netflix gradually phasing out 4K production. Star Trek: Discovery was notably made in 2K HDR, in fact.
In truth, though, this seems unlikely. In fact, a new Ultra tier could mean that more shows are made in 4K as well as HDR. Partly because 4K is much more widely understood by consumers than HDR, but mostly because without 4K there would be no technology based way of sustaining a ‘Premium’ subscription tier between a new HDR plus 4K Ultra tier and the existing entry level one.
Whether Netflix subscribers will consider HDR to be as ‘valuable’ as Netflix thinks they will remains to be seen – especially as AV fans have arguably come to see HDR and 4K as pretty much a package deal. After all, the vast majority of new 4K TVs now also support HDR, and no other video streaming service – including Apple, Amazon Video, and VUDU – offers HDR and 4K on separate pricing tiers. Netflix itself has now offered both 4K and HDR for the same Premium subscription for the best part of two years.
It’s possible, then, that trying to force people to suddenly and uniquely pay separately for these two pillars of cutting edge picture quality could go down like a lead balloon with the sort of ‘high end’ subscribers the HDR hike is aimed at.
Before anyone starts imagining that the introduction of the new Ultra tier (if it happens) will inevitably lead to a mass exodus of subscribers, though, it’s worth reflecting that however much value Netflix and AV fans might apportion to HDR, the technology’s penetration into living rooms and mainstream consciousness remains currently pretty small.
One last point to note is that the trial Ultra tier isn’t just about charging extra for HDR. It also eats into the current Premium tier by taking its support for simultaneous playback on four devices. The Premium platform’s support is reduced to simultaneous playback on two devices.
Since the new Ultra tier takes away features from the Premium tier, it seems pretty certain that if the Ultra tier goes from trial to policy, it will only apply to new subscribers and, probably, existing subscribers when their annual subscription renewal comes round (though there’s no information yet on exactly how Netflix might grandfather the new pricing in with its existing user base).
If and when Netflix decides to turn its HDR price hike trial into official policy, I will of course report it on my Forbes feed.