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4K TVs: Much ado about nothing?

A model displays Japanese electric maker Mitsubishi Electric's new 4K television in Tokyo.
Yoshikazu Tsuno | AFP | Getty Images
A model displays Japanese electric maker Mitsubishi Electric's new 4K television in Tokyo.

Manufacturers are pushing ultra-high definition (UHD) 4K televisions at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week, but analysts in Japan, where the first sets were launched in December 2012, say there's little to get excited about amid a lack of content.

"There is no 4K content being broadcast on television, and that's keeping sales of (4K)TV sets from really taking off," said Ichiro Mitsukoshi, executive analyst at retail sales research firm BCN.

In Japan, sales of the UHD 4K sets, which have resolutions four times higher than conventional high definition (HD) television sets, reached a record 7.3 percent of overall flat panel liquid crystal display (LCD) television sales in November 2014, the latest figures from BCN show.

But with most owners watching movies on Blu-ray discs that were converted to 4K resolution from 2K resolution, "any further sales expansion is dependent on original 4K broadcast content distribution," Mitsukoshi said.

If and when - maybe content

Viewers will have to wait for content.

Japan's major broadcasters tentatively plan to start test broadcasting in 4K "sometime in mid-2016", according to Yoshiki Matsuda, assistant director at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, which oversees a group that's planning a roadmap for 4K and 8K broadcasting.

While Matsuda said the potential cost of adopting 4K broadcasting equipment is a concern for TV stations, a report the group published in September 2014 said their aim is to make 4K and 8K the standard by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

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Meanwhile,"most broadcasters in Europe are likely to launch services in 2016-2018. As theEuropeans are cooperating closely with (Japan's) NHK, it is hard to imagine many that will be able to launch earlier," Paul Gray, Director of European TV Research for DisplaySearch said in a blog post in early 2014.

It's in the price

Global shipments of 4K LCD TVs soared nearly 700 percent to 12,730 sets in 2014,according to DisplaySearch. While that's less than 1 percent of total TV sales,high prices have manufactures excited. 4K TVs already represent 20 percent of total global TV sales of US$83.5 billion.

"TV prices keep falling, but 4K models are more expensive and more profitable than cheaper models," said a spokesperson for Japanese electronics conglomerate Panasonic.

Like many Japanese manufacturers, Panasonic's TV business is losing money.

The company does not disclose the numbers for its TV operations alone, but TV and panel operations tops Panasonic's list of "major unprofitable businesses",ahead of semiconductors, circuit boards, optical devices and mobile phones–combined, the operations are expected to lose 85 billion yen (around US$714 million) in the fiscal year ending March 2015.

Still,the 4K's overall future looks bright, if not for the Japanese: DisplaySearch estimates global 4K TV shipments will more than double to 32,206 sets in 2015,and again to 68,068 by 2017.

The Japanese, for their part, most probably will never regain their past dominance,when they were kings of the cathode ray tube (CRT) TV market, said BCN analyst Mitsukoshi.

"Times have changed and the Japanese don't have an edge, either in terms of cost structure or digital technology," he said.

The numbers appear to back him up: the top three 4K TV makers in the first nine months of 2014 were South Korea's Samsung Electronics, followed by China's Hisense and Skyworth, according to Display Search. Japan's Konika and Sony trailed in seventh and eighth place, with market share nearly halving from 2013. Toshiba, which launched the first 4K TV in 2012, saw its market share shrink to 0.4 percent from 19.8 percent in 2012.