With fourfold HD resolution, 4K video is impressive. But does it evoke a quadruple wow? Watching many consumers enthralled by the large screen TVs displayed in electronics stores would suggest it does. First, there is amazement of the detail and sharpness noticeably improved from HD video. Then there is the evident image depth followed by the color handling. Finally, there is the immersive experience, resulting in fans keen on having the cinematic element at home.
To understand then why the industry didn’t see soaring 4K demand right off the bat, there are some factors to note. First — and somewhat obvious — is the 4K TV set; you have to invest in a new television, which, for those on a budget, might be easier said than done. Then there is the actual content; those hovering around the 4K displays are watching several video clips shot with state-of the-art, high-end cameras — certainly not the usual equipment filling up the storerooms of most average studios. So, while a fancy screen sporting 8 million pixels can make the video seem like a photograph in motion, the reality is there has been somewhat of a limitation of 4K content.
So far, it has been a chicken-and-egg dilemma: 4K TVs won’t be widely adopted until there is 4K content. At the same time, studios won’t be thrilled to make much content available until there is a solid base of 4K TVs. This may have slowed developments, but the industry is overcoming this quandary. On the manufacturing side, we’ve seen a breakthrough. While the first 4K TVs often sported a price tag able to shrink the greatest of Ultra-HD fervor, the costs are now coming down. In unison, some broadcasters have begun making enough content to start offering 4K channels and subscriptions. Even some HD-forward stations that haven’t yet started providing dedicated 4K services are producing some Ultra-HD content to make a stockpile in preparation for the inevitable: when they join today’s 4K pioneers.
On the back of 4K TVs becoming more affordable, there has been a recent rise in sales. This is clearly evident in the United Kingdom, according to Jaime Hindhaugh, chief operating officer of BT Sport and BT TV. Both owned by BT Group, BT Sport is a collection of sports channels in the United Kingdom and Ireland, while BT TV is a subscription IPTV service with, as of the end of November 2014, close to 1.4 million subscribers. In August this year, BT Sport Ultra HD was launched, giving Europe its first paid 4K channel. Certain that 4K will not share the same fate as 3-D, which saw its hype short lived, BT Sport decided to offer a dedicated Ultra-HD channel after 18 months of research, trials, and surveys.
“Considering the enhanced picture quality and color definition, live sport in particular really benefits from 4K resolution. What 4K enables us to do is bring the audience closer to the sporting event; it gives our audience that suspense of actually being there. We have already done full-scale coverage of a lot of football, rugby and basketball, and we were very pleased with the results. We also did lots of trials and got numerous opinions in and, based on this, we know our audience believes it does enhance the quality. Therefore, we believe there is an existing audience for this better format,” says Hindhaugh. “Our offering this channel also fits in with the way the industry is moving toward 4K. It’s a much more natural successor to HD than 3-D, especially from a production angle.”
BT Sport has fully plunged into the world of 4K. Since launching its Ultra-HD channel, it has become its standard format — and not just for sports. The broadcaster also shoots films, programs, and documentaries in 4K, which are available on the dedicated Ultra-HD channel. However, this content goes mostly to the HD channels and is downresed, which Hindhaugh explaining gives better picture quality.
N24, a German TV news channel which also produces and broadcasts documentaries, reports, and sports, shares the view that 4K is the natural evolution to HD. Owned by the WeltN24 Media Group, the channel has begun producing 4K content, mostly in the fields of documentaries and reports. According to Frank Meissner, chief broadcast technology and production officer of WeltN24, limited content does pump the developmental brakes. But with 4K, he explains, it’s more of a speed bump compared to the roadblock that severely hindered 3-D. Filling the 4K content gap is easier than 3-D, which, unlike 4K, requires very different camera and gantry positions to that of HD, he says.
“In my view, one cannot compare 4K and 3-D, with the latter being limited to just a few topics and areas that are attractive for viewers. Ultra-HD is a better quality in focus achieved through just a general change of camera positions and processes during HD production. One possibly has to invest more in lighting design than ever before in order to achieve optimal results; however, extensive use of 4K offers many new opportunities and new standards in live production sets,” says Meissner.
The prices of 4K TVs becoming more affordable and increasing efforts to produce more 4K content are laudable achievements by the broadcast industry. But a significant challenge remains: distribution is an “overwhelming” issue, according to Meissner.
“Distribution costs are pivotal. 4K is a reality but how far-reaching this reality is will be determined by this. In addition to SD and HD broadcasting, 4K transition can be overwhelming,” says Meissner.
BT Sport’s Hindhaugh echoes this sentiment, stating that, while 4K is the natural evolution as HD was to SD, the distribution element has created a delay in implementation. BT Sport overcame this hurdle by developing its IP infrastructure and creating an IPTV platform that enables the channel to deliver 4K to the home with a set-top-box.
“We have complete control of the technology and it’s actually very cost efficient doing it this way. This solved our biggest challenge, which is the same for all broadcasters — the main difficulty is not really from a production perspective but rather from the distribution and delivery aspect. In my experience, shooting in 4K is not much more expensive than in HD,” says Hindhaugh. “Keeping on the technological pulse is in the broadcaster’s DNA. … We’re also looking at High Dynamic Range (HDR) to see how this can be incorporated into our 4K delivery.”
While BT Sport was able take the terrestrial route, this is not feasible for everyone. In the case of 4K, where a significantly large amount of bandwidth is needed to deliver the high quality content for all TV homes, satellite will be a key transmission. This is when the adoption of the new High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) standard becomes crucial, as satellite then is able to cost-effectively distribute Ultra-HD content to the largest number of households among all broadcasting infrastructures.
“Most Internet connections in Germany are not suitable for live 4K streaming and this is a major problem,” says Michael Sichler, CEO of pearl.tv in Germany. Having ushered in Germany’s first HD shopping channel in 2012, pearl.tv is launching pearl.tv Ultra-HD this September, marking the arrival of Europe’s first FTA live 4K channel. Broadcasting via SES’ Astra satellite and using HEVC-codec, the channel will run 24/7 all year long with 100 percent native 4K content, something that Sichler says should be followed by other broadcasters if they want to resolve the content issue that has been slowing 4K advancements.
“Not having enough free content is slowing the uptake of 4K. A main problem is that most studios have only just invested a large amount of money in HD technology in the last two years and will, therefore, be less likely to make the switch to 4K soon. However, the industry is gradually realizing that in order to speed up the uptake of 4K, it will require large investments in top-notch broadcast equipment. We need to produce real 4K content; not just upscale as seen in the early days of HD,” says Sichler.
Producing native 4K content has additional benefits, adds Wilfried Urner, CEO of SES Platform Services, a subsidiary of satellite operator SES, which is managing the technical operations of pearl.tv’s Ultra-HD broadcast. While production of 4K requires a substantial investment in equipment, Urner says the advantages of additional camera angles and extremely high-quality picture images mean content producers can do a lot more with one recording. The broadcast industry’s overcoming the chicken-and-egg scenario has stoked Urner’s 4K expectations, with his forecasting significant growth by next year.
“We are currently seeing OTT broadcasters at the forefront of native Ultra-HD productions followed by an increasing number of linear broadcasters, who are producing in 4K as well. This trend, coupled with the high number of 4K TVs at end-consumer homes, gives us good reasons to believe that adoption of Ultra-HD could go quicker than expected. It may well be that 4K becomes mass market by 2016/2017,” explains Urner. “As OTT and linear broadcasters both distribute Ultra-HD content, the more opportunities exist for content owners to monetize 4K content, and hence meet consumers’ demands.”
SES Platform Services expects an increasing number of broadcasters to take the satellite route, especially after main international sporting events in 2016 and 2018 are successfully broadcast in 4K. This is because once a satellite is broadcasting TV content to a geographic area, the marginal cost of reaching another household is minimal, explains Urner.
Keeping his expectations for 2016 and 2017 high, Urner acknowledges the possibility of 4K uptake being slowed by the ongoing technology debate about an improved Phase 2 Ultra-HD standard with HDR and High Frame Rate (HFR) capabilities. This improved standard will require a new generation of equipment, possibly seen in 2018, according to Urner, and therefore some operators may prefer to hold off a 4K launch until all these picture quality improvements have been implemented.
“However, broadcasters will need to react upon the increasing number of OTT offers in Ultra-HD and the rapidly increasing number of 4K TV sets in consumer homes. And Ultra-HD via satellite will certainly become a success story,” says Urner. “We believe 4K broadcasting transmissions will start off with special events such as the 2016 Olympic Games; following the success of these events, broadcasters will go on to create Ultra-HD channels.”
European broadcasters have made an Ultra-HD breakthrough. While the majority of studios and channels across the continent are preparing for 4K, the large broadcasters and operators are currently engaging in first Ultra-HD productions and test transmissions. In August this year, BT Sport Ultra HD was launched, giving Europe its first paid 4K channel. In September, the launch of pearl.tv UHD marked the arrival of Europe’s first FTA live 4K shopping channel.
While there are good developments in Europe, demand for 4K is particularly strong in Asia, notes Wilfried Urner, CEO of SES Platform Services, the subsidiary of satellite operator SES, which is managing the technical operations of pearl.tv Ultra-HD. In Japan, broadcasters have formed a national alliance to promote 4K and there are already Ultra-HD channels available. The plan is that more channels will be launched in Japan by 2016. In South Korea, a 4K channel called UMAX has also been launched.
“In India, we see at least two Direct-to-Home (DTH) operators launching — or are in the midst of launching — Ultra-HD channels and introducing 4K Set-Top Boxes (STBs) this year. A number of users are expected to jump directly from SD to Ultra-HD in this market,” says Urner.
There has also been a high number of 4K TV sets sold in China and in the United States. Based on this, it seems likely that consumers in these markets will sooner or later demand regular content in the new resolution, spurring greater activity. VS