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Netflix rolls out high tech HDR content but barely anyone is watching

Netflix is now rolling out what many are calling the next technological wonder: high dynamic range or HDR video. HDR creates a more vibrant, realistic picture, but many won't see it because watching HDR shows involves many hurdles, including buying a new TV.

HDR TV offers more contrast and richer colours say tech experts

A scene from Marco Polo, a Netflix original series that's now streaming in HDR. (Phil Bray for Netflix)

In the race to bring TV viewers the latest and greatest, Netflix is now rolling out what many are calling the next technological wonder: high dynamic range or HDR video.

For those who thought it couldn't get better than high definition TV, brace yourself. 

Netflix claims the new format gives customers "an even more visually stunning experience."

By providing more contrast between light and dark images, HDR creates a more vibrant, realistic picture.

"You get a little bit more dynamic cinematic-type colour," explains Adrian Bulzacki, CEO of enterprise software company ARB Labs.

He says viewers will notice an improvement in shows and films with many bright or dark images.

He cites as an example the original Netflix series Daredevil. "The show is constantly in the dark, dark hallways, there's a lot of shadows. That's where you start seeing a difference," he says.

Netflix reports only one series so far, Marco Polo, is streaming in HDR. However, more shows, including Daredevil, will soon be added to the list.
Netflix says subscribers will soon be able to watch Daredevil in HDR for a better viewing experience. (Netflix)

HDR's big hurdles

There are a few hurdles, however, to viewing HDR content. First, you need a premium Netflix subscription. In Canada, that costs $12 a month. The more popular standard membership is $10.

Second, you need really fast internet; estimates range from 18 to 25 megabits per second. In other words, if you have a basic, cheap internet package, chances are you won't be able to stream Marco Polo in its finest format.

Third and likely the biggest hurdle, you need to buy an HDR-ready TV, which are new on the market. Chances are your current set isn't compatible. In fact, you may not have even upgraded yet to 4K television.

4K, also referred to as ultra-high definition, quadruples the number of pixels of a standard HD image. The more pixels, the sharper the picture.

4K TVs are becoming more popular and Netflix has already starting offering some shows in the format, such as House of Cards and Breaking Bad.

HDR TVs currently being sold typically include 4K because the two technologies complement each other.

"[HDR] seems to be widely regarded by the industry as a whole as the next step beyond 4K," says International Data Corporation (IDC) analyst Emily Taylor.

She explains that 4K only addresses resolution or picture sharpness, then HDR steps in to finesse the contrast and colours.

HDR TVs aren't hot sellers

At Toronto TV store 2001 Audio Video, HDR televisions aren't exactly flying off the shelves. At least not yet.

Assistant manager Leo Hernandez says many major manufacturers such as Samsung and LG now make 4K HDR TVs. But, at his store, they cost about $800 more than standard HD models and about $400 more than 4K-only televisions.
Leo Hernandez with 2001 Audio Video says the HDR TV — seen here — is the next big thing. (Submitted by Leo Hernandez)

At this point, says Hernandez, HDR is not a major selling point for many people. "I don't even think customers know what [it is], to be honest."

But he claims that will change as more films and TV shows are offered in HDR format and people start to appreciate the technology.

"In a few years from now, when all this stuff is in 4K and HDR, you might regret not getting the HDR TV," he says.

The next big thing?

ARB Labs' CEO Bulzacki says HDR is "gimmicky or niche right now." But Netflix is in a battle for supremacy with competing streaming services like HBO, he says.

Adding "the next big thing," to Netflix's offerings enhances its image. "They're trying to look like they're innovators," he adds.

IDC analyst Taylor points out that Netflix has an advantage over some competitors because the company creates much more of its own content. To watch a show in HDR, it either has to be shot or converted to the format.

"They are obviously creating Netflix originals," she explains. "They can choose to film those however they want including [using] that HDR technology."

Netflix told CBC News that even though HDR is still a new concept, it expects the technology to become more popular with viewers over time.

Bulzacki agrees that eventually many people will have 4K HDR TVs in their living rooms. But he questions how much that will enhance the Netflix experience. He says viewers will need a large TV screen to truly appreciate HDR programs.

Currently many people watch Netflix on tablets or laptops. So, he concludes, even in the future when numerous Netflix shows are offered in HDR, "most of it you won't see because we're all streaming things on small [screens]."

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris has worked as a CBC video journalist across the country, covering everything from the start of the annual lobster fishery in Yarmouth, N.S., to farming in Saskatchewan. She now has found a good home at the business unit in Toronto. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca