Netflix’s HDR gatekeeping is consumer unfriendly

High dynamic range (HDR) is one of the biggest innovations for TV and smartphone displays in years. The technology improves luminance, color, highlights, and shadows, giving TV shows and movies a more natural, realistic look. It also enjoys wide availability across TVs, mobile devices, and streaming content. But bafflingly, in 2023, Netflix is the only streaming service that gate keeps HDR behind their highest tier subscription. It’s an underhanded, dated, and consumer unfriendly practice.

Critically, Netflix’s tiered strategy around streaming quality leaves the overwhelming majority of its massive audience in the dark (literally) on HDR’s full potential. Netflix is ubiquitous, virtually a utility at this point, and locking HDR away hampers the technology’s long term awareness and adoption. Fewer eyeballs, more shrugs about HDR’s effectiveness, and potentially more filmmakers questioning how essential HDR capture is in the first place.

Of course, Netflix is far from the only streamer that offers HDR TV shows and movies. For example, on HBO Max, you can watch popular series like The Last of Us and House of the Dragon in 4K HDR. For Disney Plus, all recent Marvel and Star Wars features are streamable in 4K HDR.

However, Netflix has built up the most extensive, most varied HDR library around, thanks to rigorous capture standards the service enforces on virtually all recent Netflix originals. Ironically, their HDR output could be a competitive edge, but only if more watchers could experience it.

Netflix’s positioning around HDR likely comes down to cold economics: the service anchors a lower, competitive price for a vast (majority) audience watching Netflix on their phones or laptops where HDR is a nonfactor. For those that want the best, Netflix quietly pockets a 25% upcharge.

Cynically, Netflix’s HDR gatekeeping also benefits from minimal mainstream coverage. On paper, content is king; thus, HDR gets treated as a minor consequence compared to a streaming service’s library size or whether the viewer has to sit through ads. Sites from The Verge to The New York Times regularly pit Netflix’s standard plan ($15.49 a month in the US) against competitors without noting the cap at 1080p HD.

Given the step up to HDR is $19.99 a month – pushing Netflix into the priciest of big name streaming options – I understand why Netflix is cagey around how streaming quality changes across tiers. When you sign up for the service or check their pricing page, they use language like “HD,” “Full HD,” and “Ultra HD” to compare streaming quality. Arguably this is aimed at customers where references to 1080p, 4K, and HDR are meaningless, but “full” and “ultra” doesn’t add much clarity either. The wording comes across as an intentional sleight of hand for a tech savvy audience.

Notably, none of Netflix’s competition takes such an aggressive stance around 4K HDR. Nor do they hop around terminology like “ultra” to describe HD. It’s overdue for Netflix to reverse course and add 4K HDR quality streaming to more of its pricing tiers. Yes, such a move would mean fewer premium subscribers over the short term. At the same time, the long term upside is huge: it increases mainstream awareness around HDR tech, avoids confusing their audience, and, most importantly, makes Netflix a more formidable competitor against rivals.