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Sound and Vision: YouTube putting 4K behind a paywall would be the wrong decision

OPINION: Google officially unveiled its latest round of Pixel products with the Pixel 7 Pro and Pixel Tablet, but of more interest to this column was the news spreading earlier in the week about YouTube.

Google has been running a test over the past few weeks whereby 4K content is locked behind a YouTube Premium subscription. Google confirmed this on Twitter (a tweet that’s since been deleted) as part of an experiment to understand the feature preferences between Premium and non-Premium viewers.

It’s early days and not a done deal that 4K streaming would be locked behind a paywall, but to me, putting 4K viewing behind a subscription would be the wrong decision.

From Google’s point of view, it’s losing money on its streaming service (that’s a whole other debate for another column) and needs to make up the cash in some way but I don’t think ring-fencing 4K content makes sense.

4K Ultra HD is, or at least it should be, the resolution we should all be watching in, but it’s not. 4K has been around for at least the last ten years and it’s still not as widespread as it should be. If it weren’t for OTT services, there wouldn’t be much 4K content to sample with Sky and BT Sport the only real broadcasters in the UK to commit to having 4K broadcast channels. The likes of ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and even the BBC (although iPlayer is increasing its quota) are lagging behind. We’re still very much in the habit of watching HD, even though we’re buying TVs capable of much better.

BT Sports are merging with Eurosport

Examples like Disney+, iPlayer, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+ are the ones leading the way in 4K content being available in a single subscription. While Netflix’s tiered approach to resolutions makes a degree of sense in giving the consumer choice, it’s not helping the proliferation of 4K as viewers will almost always choose the cheaper option if they think it’s not necessary to go for the top tier.

It’s a similar dilemma that’s affecting the rollout of 8K, where that’s suffered from a dearth of content as well as a lack of access. Aside from a few experiments by BT Sport, not many broadcasters outside of Japan’s NHK are putting an emphasis on 8K watching; TVs still cost too much and there’s barely any content to view in the format.

The same could happen to 4K except there is plenty of content within the ecosystem to view so locking it behind a paid subscription would be an own goal. Internet speeds are improving, 4K is there but what’s needed is a bigger push.

If YouTube commits to its current line of thinking, it’ll simply be hanging on to what it has rather than opening the doors up. As soon as 4K becomes the norm, the better, as we’ll be leaving the dingy lower resolution of HD and SD behind. Access to 4K gives people a reason to upgrade to 4K displays and buy more content in 4K. To deny that access only slows down the uptake of 4K as the norm.

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