Netflix is trying to push the next big eye-grabbing video format into the mainstream

Could HDR overshadow 4K?
Could HDR overshadow 4K?
Image: AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
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Last fall, Netflix debuted a new tier to its streaming service, offering a small catalog of 4K content to those with ultra-HD TVs. CEO Reed Hastings considers the move a long-tail plan: As people upgrade their TVs, demand for high-resolution content will eventually soar.

But, as Netflix revealed in its earnings report yesterday, it’s also planning to offer another eye-grabbing format: high dynamic range (HDR) video.

The streaming company doesn’t mention a timeline other than “soon,” but it did argue that HDR represents “a more significant step forward in viewing pleasure” than 4K, the company said in a letter to shareholders. Netflix’s latest original content such as Marco Polo is shot in HDR-4K, according to the Huffington Post.

The popularity of HDR imaging arose largely from digital photography—it’s now a built-in feature on smartphones, including the iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy S5. Photographers realized they could combine multiple exposures of the same photo to bring out details from shadows and bright areas that would have otherwise been lost.

For HDR video, the result is a “hyperreal” effect that some advocates say more closely mimics what the human eye can see. As Netflix describes it, the new format “captures and renders pictures with more realistic peak brightness in the highlights.” So far, early reviews suggest that HDR has a more visceral impact than 4K.

Netflix says it’ll build up its HDR library as manufacturers ready new TV sets later this year; LG, Sony, and Samsung recently showed off prototypes at CES. As TV manufacturers have learned, just because you build it doesn’t mean the content will come. For HDR to avoid the same fate as 4K—which is generally lagging in adoption—an early emphasis on content will be key. That’s where Netflix comes into the picture.