News Analysis
The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Apple and the Hollywood studios have been battling over how much consumers should pay to purchase a movie in 4K. Apple, says the report, wants a $19.99 price tag while the studios prefer something between $25 and $30.

The battle apparently has slowed Apple’s effort to strike agreements with the studios to offer their 4K films on Apple’s new 4K Apple TV streaming device, which is likely to be unveiled next month.

Hollywood’s stance is not particularly surprising. Most new-release 4K Blu-ray movies cost $25, although Amazon often lowers the price by $5 or so after the title has been on the market for several weeks.

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The studios believe that 4K is a premium product that will bring back a premium price; they had a similar view roughly a decade ago when they began releasing movies in Blu-ray high-def. The early Blu-ray titles were priced at $10 or more than their DVD counterparts.

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Now 4K Blu-ray titles are getting the same respect with their prices nearly $10 more than the high-def Blu-ray.

However, that’s where the studios are wrong and Apple is right.

The difference between 4K and high-def is not the same as the difference between high-def and DVD. While 4K can deliver an incremental upgrade in picture, it’s not an eye-popping improvement as high-def was when it was introduced more than 10 years ago.

In fact, many consumers can barely tell the difference between 4K and high-def, particularly if their 4K sets are under 60 inches. (The bigger the set, the more likely you will see the difference in the 4K picture.).

And don’t get me started on HDR (High Dynamic Range), a 4K feature that purports to deliver a more vivid and colorful picture. Some 4K titles in HDR look somewhat better than a regular 4K while others (to this old reporter’s eye, at least) don’t look any better than a Blu-ray disc.

While HDR improvements are on the way, right now it’s one of the most overrated new technologies on the scene.

Making matters worse is the never-ending skirmish over 4K formats that leaves consumers more confused than they were during the early Blu-ray-HD DVD format battle in the mid 2000s.

Bottom line: Asking people to pay an extra $10 for a 4K movie is ridiculous. Simply ridiculous, whether it’s an online download, as Apple wants to sell, or a hard disc, as in the form of a Blu-ray title.

The studios should be bending over backwards to get consumers to sample 4K TV video rather than giving them yet another reason not to buy a 4K TV.

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Final Note: Some 4K titles are better than others; those titles can deliver a slightly improved viewing experience than a regular Blu-ray. But there’s a huge gap in picture quality from one disc to another. Overall, 4K does not yet deliver what the studios have been promising.

— Phillip Swann