In a time when trends, fads and “viral” topics take the spotlight, it is easy to wonder if 4K would become more than another buzzword. There was a lot of hype around 3-D, but one would be hard pressed to find a mass of consumers still excited around this technology.
There is something different about Ultra-HD, however. 4K leaves impressions on consumers that last longer than the few minutes they would have been wearing glasses in front of a 3-D TV. Consumers are wondering when a substantive amount of 4K content will be available to view, and this is something pay-TV operators are aware of. This mutual interest is spurring development beyond what many expected as most, if not all pay-TV operators, are actively considering when and how 4K fits into their plans.
The first place viewers are likely to encounter 4K today is on the big screen. While regular television broadcasts are the anticipated bedrock for satellite operators, movie theaters are pioneering the technology, as they did for 3-D. The large audiences cinemas draw have made movies one of the early popular formats for native 4K content.
“The number of cinemas equipped with 4K is growing rapidly,” says Walter Capitani, vice president of marketing at International Datacasting Corporation. “Almost all new installations are using 4K projectors … cinema has always strived to push the boundaries of the viewing experience, and given the benefits of 4K — improved image quality and a more immersive experience — it is natural that cinemas would move to 4K.”
Movies have a level of scalability that can justify the cost of recording and transmitting in Ultra-HD. Worldwide audiences create a large addressable market in which the satellite industry can also have play.
“Satellite movie distribution is fully compatible with 4K movies — the transition from delivering 2K Digital Cinema Packages (DCPs) to the current mix of 2K and 4K content has gone very smoothly … the use of satellite means that higher bit rate video can be delivered to theatres, and use of High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) to compress the content means that the immersive nature of the 4K image is preserved,” says Capitani.
Sporting content is another early forum for Ultra-HD. Competitions, especially international ones, generate large diverse audiences that make 4K more economical. Sports are also of greater interest to broadcasters, as they will likely fuel many of the first regular 4K channels.
“Sports and movies are two of the most scalable types of entertainment. If you have Manchester United vs. Chelsea, you can broadcast that in Sub-Saharan Africa, South East Asia, Latin America, the United States — you have this enormously larger audience than even a Yankees vs. Red Sox game,” says Blaine Curcio, analyst at NSR.
The 2014 World Cup in particular became a center stage for 4K. Several games, including the final match, were recorded and broadcasted in 4K for a large audience. Curcio says this presented a major opportunity for broadcasters to reach consumers, because delivering World Cup matches in 4K brought to life an event with a huge fan base like never before. Not only were viewers drawn in, it is now becoming their expectation that certain global events be covered in 4K.
“If you look at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, I was living in the Netherlands at the time, and the Netherlands being a football-crazed country, and also a very developed country, no one was talking about 4K at that point. It was not even on anyone’s radar. It is amazing to think that it has gone from no one talking about it to it now being implied that yes, some World Cup matches will be broadcast in 4K,” says Curcio.
In 2010 Sony used the World Cup as a premier opportunity to demonstrate 3-D technology. This year, after partnering with FIFA for the first live distribution of a 4K game, Sony used 12 Ultra-HD cameras to capture content. Three games were ultimately broadcast to viewers in 4K. Sony partnered with IDC, Eutelsat and DSAT Cinema to broadcast quarterfinal and the final matches of the World Cup by satellite to cinema audiences. David Bush, head of marketing and business development for Sony Professional Solutions Europe notes that 4K has been developing in line with expectations.
“In terms of acquisition, production, workflow, and editing equipment, things have developed very quickly, and as usual there needs to be quicker uptake on the production side, ahead of the mass-market rollout of 4K for broadcasts,” he says.
For Sony, capturing content in 4K is an important step to begin immediately so that broadcasters, when they are ready, will have a sufficient amount of content to fill channels. The World Cup was arguably the best place to advertise for it as Sony did, as it was one of the most-watched events in the world. Furthermore, seeing the advances of Ultra-HD may whet the appetite of viewers and thus put further pressure on broadcasters.
“Until there is a good weight of content, it is going to be difficult for broadcasters to really switch to 4K in a large-scale way,” adds Bush. “We are just now starting to see broadcasters take a real practical interest and start to run trials. Our anticipation would be that we will start to see some broadcast services emerging over the next year or so.”
Currently, it is not uncommon for content, once captured in Ultra-HD, to then be down-converted to HD. Though satellite companies are readying to begin delivering 4K, having conducted multiple demonstrations and even hosting full demo channels, distribution opportunities remain limited. National Geographic, for example, says down-converting has become a regular part of the business.
“National Geographic has had many shows shooting in 4K with the workflow having them down-converted to HD for post and delivery to the network,” says Brad Hughes, broadcast engineer, National Geographic Channels. “The cost of an end-to-end 4K workflow is still more than a 4K shoot and post in HD. As these new 4K edit systems and codecs come to the market the costs should even out.”
Down-converting is not all bad news, however. Though it may initially appear retrograde, Bush notes that as a short-term solution, down-converting still builds up 4K content reserves, effectively “future-proofing” the material for a later date. Additionally, HD content that has been down-converted from 4K still yields a high quality broadcast. Broadcasters that chose this as a way to prepare for 4K broadcasts stand poised to make the most of those opportunities when they deem fit.
HD content can also be upscaled to 4K in lieu of native acquisition. Certain 4K televisions have the ability to combine HD content to reach 4K levels. Bush believes this too is a good way for consumers desiring 4K content to access it while channels are scarce. For Hughes, the cost still needs to come down significantly before National Geographic starts broadcasting in 4K, but he is hopeful that the company will have channels by the end of the decade.
“In 3 to 5 years we could have cable and satellite channels in 4K. National Geographic is exploring direct distribution channels via the Internet for specials and current content,” he says.
Hughes points to Sony and Netflix as examples of 4K being effectively distributed when the right distribution paths are available. In addition to the World Cup, Sony also broadcasted the movie War Horse in collaboration with Creative Broadcast Solutions, NEP Visions and Links Broadcast over SES’ Astra 3B satellite. As video becomes an ever larger percentage of global broadband use, Netflix in particular is confident Internet will be the preferred method of watching 4K.
“Streaming will be the primary way consumers receive Ultra-HD 4K,” says a Netflix source. “Though Ultra-HD 4K will initially be adopted slowly, it will become mainstream as new TVs adopt the new technology and consumers look to upgrade their devices to get the noticeably better image quality … You should expect a trickle of Ultra-HD 4K titles on Netflix in the coming months, with volume increasing in 2015.”
Netflix began carrying Ultra-HD content in April 2014, including acclaimed shows such as Breaking Bad and House of Cards. YouTube also started supporting 4K videos, which have since collected millions of views. Intelsat’s Director of Managed Media Services Ken Takagi agrees that Over-The-Top (OTT) content is a gateway to 4K for consumers.
“We are finding that OTT providers and Smart TV manufacturers are enabling early adoption of 4K Ultra-HD TV via the Internet, focusing on streaming or downloadable content as they build up their libraries,” he says. “Given that filming in 4K is still in the nascent stages, it will take time to develop a large enough library to launch actual channels in 4K. Based on that, we do not foresee a visible uptake in 4K until 2016 at the earliest, when we believe that a few linear channels might begin to appear globally.”
Takagi thinks mainstream adoption is still some time away, adding that 4K “still requires numerous upgrades in production, transmission and in consumers’ homes,” and that these upgrades “can take multiple years of planning.” He says more collaboration is needed to build up the 4K ecosystem — something Intelsat intends to continue. Currently, cinema and sporting events are the top outlets for 4K content. While satellite has played a role in cinema distribution, sports stand to open up bigger doors.
“It is certainly going to be these big events and movies and this sort of thing followed by regular season sports on television in the home,” says Curcio. “General DTH or video distribution would be the backbone for 4K via satellite. If I were to put a time frame on that, in very developed East Asian markets, the United States and to a lesser degree Western Europe I would say we will start to see that quite soon. I would think, depending on how well received the World Cup content is, we could start seeing at least some handful of channels being broadcast on 4K as early as next year or 2016 in terms of broadcasts.”
NSR anticipates close to 300 Ultra-HD channels broadcasting by 2023, including channels in key developing markets. Driving these early channels would be internationally televised sporting events. In places where the average income might be lower than other markets, the sheer number of interested viewers could validate broadcasting in 4K. Curcio mentions sports like cricket in India, which has a massive following domestically, as well as a sizeable following internationally from Indians who have moved to other countries. Broadcasters seeking to serve cricket fans in established broadcasting markets with 4K may also see the value in sending that broadcast to India as well.
“Globalization may help spur 4K because you are going to have people in different parts of the world with vastly differing levels of income wanting to watch the same thing. So if you have an Indian population of well over a million in Canada, and well over a million in the United Kingdom, then 4K can be produced for communities like that abroad and then potentially rebroadcasted in India just because it has already been produced,” says Curcio.
Underpinning all the efforts of producers, broadcasters, distributors and the entire 4K ecosystem, is the interest of consumers and their willingness to purchase 4KTVs. Strategy Analytics charts the number of Ultra-HD television sales rising from 72,000 units in 2012 to 1.7 million in 2013. Most of the 2013 sales were in China, where state-run media operates most if not all broadcasts. But the research group expects a more than 10-fold increase in the number of 4KTV shipments, from 4 percent to 41 percent, as a percentage of the global flat panel TV market between now and 2020.
“We expect North America to be the next largest market [following China] for Ultra-HD TVs on a units-shipped basis followed by Western Europe,” says David Watkins, director of Connected Home Devices at Strategy Analytics. “The U.S. is expected to be a strong market for Ultra-HD TVs thanks to the high proportion of TVs sold in the country that are in excess of 50-inches. By the end of the decade we expect the vast majority if not all TVs with screen sizes above 50-inch to be Ultra-HD.
While 4K content is still trickling along, Watkins notes that 4K TV price tags have fallen significantly from where they stood a year ago. Buying a 4K set from companies such as Sony, LG or Samsung can cost slightly more than $2,000, he said, and competition is driving this number even lower.
“Compared to the pricing evolution of HD, the current pricing and availability of consumer premises equipment are much more cost efficient than HD was at this stage,” notes Takagi. “In addition, TVs and set-top-boxes (STBs) are available and the pricing has been much more affordable than HD in its early stages.”
The general consensus is that 4K needs more time to develop before a wealth of channels is available. In the meantime, signals from consumers, producers, satellite operators and others are encouraging signs the 4K is in fact, the next step in the longterm evolution of television.
“We believe that we will probably see regular 4K channels around late 2015 or 2016 in advance of the Rio Olympics as we are working with partners along the value chain for building an ecosystem ready for this date,” says Cristiano Benzi, director line of business video and broadcasting at Eutelsat. “Of course we don’t expect by 2015/2016 for 4K to be mainstream, but we really believe that it will be a technology that will be available and growing and a differentiating option for pay-TV platforms.”