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Inside the Minds of the First 4K Channels Ever

Ultra-HD is, at last, available for consumers to watch. The first channels are now online, and more are expected to follow, but the technology roadmap is not without its potholes. Via Satellite talks to some of the first Ultra-HD channels on the market about their motives, discoveries along the way, and their expectations for the future.

After much anticipation, the first full-fledged linear 4K Ultra-HD channels are up and running. The barrier of insufficient content is falling faster than it’s worth charting, now that producers are often filming in 4K regardless of whether or not the final screen-worthy product is HD or Ultra-HD.

Ultra-HD still has its challenges, even with TV set costs coming down and consumer awareness on the rise, but today’s pioneers see real value in being first to market with Ultra-HD, and anticipate that, by taking the lead, they will differentiate themselves enough to stand out, thus justifying the enormous investment it takes to go all-in on Ultra-HD.

Trailblazing

As the means to actually launch Ultra-HD television channels comes within reach of more broadcasters, a handful of cavaliers have charged ahead with first to market channels.

“I wanted 4KUniverse to be one of the first in this space,” says Matthew Mancinelli, founder and CEO of 4KUniverse, whose 4K Subscription Video-on-Demand (VOD) service launched in June this year. “I came up with the idea to launch 4KUniverse over Christmas 2015. My film/TV distribution company Mance Media had successfully delivered 4K VOD titles to its various partnered 4K platforms and, at that time, I believe, 8 million 4K TVs had been sold in the United States. It got me thinking: this new cutting edge technology was rapidly being sold, but there was no consumer-friendly brand or one-stop-shop destination to watch 4K content.”

Being first has its perks, according to many operators of early Ultra-HD channels. Consumers are buying up Ultra-HD television sets with greater regularity and expecting to find Ultra-HD content to validate their purchases. This demand for content, Mancinelli says, made being first much more appealing because it gave plenty of time to build up the 4KUniverse brand and gain exposure.

For Television Entertainment & Reality Network (TERN International), Ultra-HD is a distinguishing characteristic that helped make INsight, its global factual entertainment channel, into something noteworthy for consumers.

“We are a new player,” explains TERN International CEO Rian Bester. “We are not a recognized brand or an existing channel, so when we started planning the channel in late 2014, we very quickly realized that if we didn’t do something special, we would just be one of the many thousands of HD channels. Ultra-HD allowed us to take a pioneering position, and that also allowed us to stand out from the crowd.”

Starting a Channel in Ultra-HD

The technology investments broadcasters have to make to have an Ultra-HD channel are enormous. Going Ultra-HD means being fully committed from production to distribution.

“Fashion One has been painstakingly re-engineering its entire workflow,” says Gleb Livshits, chief operations officer of Fashion One Television, whose company launched what it touts as the first global Ultra-HD channel, Fashion One 4K, in September 2015. “We have over 110 production teams on the ground covering over 45 fashion cities which needed to be equipped with new, state-of-the-art 4K cameras. We implemented a complete overhaul of the post-production workflow including editing, rendering, playlist generation, as well as the playout on our seven different worldwide feeds.”

Bester says TERN International spent “several man-years” on testing up front to determine which cameras met the company’s specifications. The list of challenges — storage, transfer, different graphics, codecs, post-production and playout, not to mention costs of bandwidth — is long, but there is reason to move fast because Ultra-HD is a different, hungrier animal than HD ever was. Bester notes that previously, HD had content first, TVs second. Now it is the reverse, with consumer electronics manufacturers introducing 4K Ultra-HD screens first and expecting content to follow.

Stingray played a Cabaret Contemporain live in 4K Ultra-HD.Photo: Stingray

Ultra-HD is picking up faster than HD too. Rob Overman artistic director for Stingray Europe and chief creative officer of Brava TV, says his company was enjoying solid growth in HD when 4K Ultra-HD emerged seemingly out of nowhere into the public consciousness. Brava TV was one of the first full HD channels in Europe back in 2007, with Overman and partner Robert Rutten at the helm. Brava TV was broadcasting classical music, opera, ballet and more through satellite and IPTV to audiences across the continent. In 2012 he and Rutten formed DJAZZ.tv, a channel dedicated to Jazz music that after three years had spread like wildfire to 45 countries via satellite, cable and IPTV, when suddenly Ultra-HD became a big deal.

“Last year became a roller coaster because we found out during presentations for cable operators and TV operators that 4K was becoming hot,” he explains. “And of course we were looking at 4K because that would again mean higher quality for the content, but we didn’t know how fast it was growing!”

Overman says 4K became an enabler for a new channel that he and Rutten had long mulled over: a festival channel featuring content from all different genres of musical performing arts. As an exclusively 4K channel, they felt operators would be more interested in running it. This method proved successful — Overman and Rutten kept working on Festival 4K even during the acquisition of DJAZZ.tv and two other Brava TV Group channels by Stingray Digital Group in 2015. Festival 4K was so successful that within a year Stingray purchased it as well, adding the channel to its line up of 4K Ultra-HD offerings.

“Music and art has always been very interesting for technical innovators,” says Overman, who is a former managing director for the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra. “We know that because we come from that world. Although we had no clue how much 4K content was on the market, or what would be coming to the market, we had the gut feeling that the same thing that happened many years ago to stretch from [SD to HD] … that it would work again.”

Stingray now runs two Ultra-HD channels: Festival 4K and Ambience 4K, the latter of which combines stunning sceneries from around the world with slow playing music.

Getting the Content

Ultra-HD is a multifaceted endeavor, and many early adopters are pushing to make sure it is more than just 4K. True Ultra-HD requires more Frames Per Second (FPS), a wider color gamut, and more gradations of light through High Dynamic Range (HDR). This means endeavoring not to sacrifice quality in order to have enough content.

“When we launched the channel, we had limited hours of production of our own,” says Bester. “Our initial productions were already done on 50-fps, but we had to acquire some content. In some cases, to make enough hours to make the linear channel interesting to watch, we had to do some upscaling. Our preference was to find content that was already shot in 4K Ultra-HD.”

Overman says the first month of Festival 4K had only a handful of productions — around 20 to 30 — before the company could really build out a healthy supply of content.

4KUniverse’s 4K TV show Model Turned Superstar.Photo: 4KUniverse

“We knew it would take at least two years before there was enough music content to have a ‘grown up’ channel. In the beginning it takes time to find and produce the right content,” he says.

With French cable company Free, Overman says Festival 4K had a favorable agreement to start with a show channel, and it wasn’t long before they had a “flying start” to quickly build out a more robust selection of content. Bester says TERN International is phasing upscaled content out in favor of what is natively produced, and that all of the company’s own productions are native Ultra-HD. Mancinelli echoes this second point for 4KUniverse as well. When not using 4K content from TV festivals, film festivals and filmmaker submissions, the company natively produces its own Ultra-HD content.

“4KUniverse has been shooting and airing 4K in 60fps. It looks stunning. We are also beginning to shoot the AVP Pro Beach Volleyball matches in 4K HDR. So, I think both the frame rate and the addition of HDR to 4K are important to consider when scheduling a shoot. These are important because we have to keep up with the ever-changing technology trends — and because the resulting image is spectacular!” he says.

“Producers should focus on the highest possible quality standards: filming in at least 50fps, high color range, HDR and surround audio. This will make the difference over the current HD experience,” Overman adds.

Distribution

The four broadcasters interviewed here are all fielding linear channels with or with the intention of using satellite for distribution. 4KUniverse is a customer of AsiaSat to reach the Asia-Pacific, and SES for audiences in North America. TERN International teamed with SES for Europe and Measat for the Asia Pacific, reaching audiences through companies including Tricolor in Russia, Sky in the United Kingdom, and Vodafone in Spain and Europe. Bester says the company has several other discussions underway with carriers in Europe, Japan, Korea and Hong Kong, and is considering options to reach the Americas. For Festival 4K, Overman says Stingray reaches European viewers through Free, and anticipates reaching a larger audience soon through satellite. Fashion One, a customer of Yahsat, Measat and SES, delivers its Fashion 4K channel to audiences on three continents by satellite.

Satellite is praised for its ability to deliver point to multipoint content with consistently high standards, since it does not face the quality degradation issues that can stem from adaptive streaming over the internet. But there is a bottleneck affecting the uptake of satellite Ultra-HD: Set-Top Boxes (STB).

“[STBs] capable of Ultra-HD, High Efficiency Video Codec (HEVC) decode at higher frame rates are still not widely available and distributed by operators,” Bester laments. “This is a big investment for them, because many operators in the past years have rolled out new high end STBs with significant capital investment, and to then go and swap out those boxes only after a few years is a big ask.”

Overman says linear has incentives for broadcasters because they can offer a package to operators instead of just VOD. Stingray offers a long form channel with concerts between one hour and two and a half hours of major musicians. While the company does have VOD, he says the linear channel creates value for distributors.

Fashion One 4K’s Hair and Make-up Confidentials TV series.Photo: Fashion One

Without sufficient Ultra-HD ready STBs, however, broadcasters have to keep their options open.

“Perhaps satellite is one of the strongest delivery methods of 4K into homes, but everyone is waiting for 4K STBs to be mass deployed to the consumer,” says Mancinelli. “4K channels via cable will most likely hit in 2017. As for apps, we have commissioned an app development company to begin work this year. I am most excited to offer 4KUniverse as a 4K SVOD channel with a 4K Live feature on Amazon Fire TV, Roku 4, Xbox One S, and Samsung 4K TVs. I wish Tim Cook would be more aggressive in bringing 4K into the fold at Apple.”

Livshits says having complete content ownership and producing all content in Ultra-HD, makes Fashion One equipped to adapt to any upcoming changes in delivery technology.

“By producing all content with 100 percent rights, Fashion One 4K is able to give cable/satellite operator partners additional value and flexibility in offering more engaging content through different mediums — a definite edge in the digital era,” he explains.

Bester says he has come across some interesting solutions to the STB problem, such as a “daughter box” from a South Korean company that can do HEVC decode to an existing STB. This could extend the life of existing STBs. He said the retrofit solution is not “dirt cheap,” but could be better than replacing the box as the broadcast sector seeks to overcome this hurdle.

“The availability of STBs and the willingness of operators to distribute them is still probably the biggest stumbling block at this point,” he says.

Future Forecast

Expectations for the future of Ultra-HD are pretty much unanimously upbeat, with television sales acting as a guiding light for broadcasters. Citing a 2014 Statista study, Livshits anticipates 4K TV shipments will grow by around 240 percent in 2018 compared to 2015. He says Fashion 4K has been very well received as one of the only Ultra-HD channels in the world at this point. Mancinelli’s expectation is that all 50-inch and above televisions sold will be 4K TVs starting in 2018. By 2020, he believes 4K will hit critical mass and more than 50 percent of American households will own at least one 4K television.

“I also strongly believe (and I am biased on this one), that the 4KUniverse TV channel will be in 50 million homes by Q4 2018,” he adds.

Overman says music, along with sports, film series and nature are genres consumers go wild about, which is why Stingray is so active in Ultra-HD. Bester adds that by this time next year, there should be many more Ultra-HD channels on the market.

“If you just look purely at the number of Ultra-HD capable screens that have been sold and are being sold, it’s obvious that 2017 will reach a tipping point where more and more broadcasters will start launching their first or more Ultra-HD services,” he says.

Former 3Net CEO: Ultra-HD Can Deliver What 3-D Promised

Tom Cosgrove led 3Net, a joint venture between Sony, Discovery and Imax dedicated to 3-D television in the early 2010s. Enthusiasm around 3-D quickly waxed and waned, as consumers never came to terms with the requirement of wearing glasses to watch television. Cosgrove guided 3Net as CEO before shifting to Discovery Family Channel, a joint venture between Discovery and Hasbro, where he also oversaw Discovery’s 4K initiatives. Before 3Net closed, its studios division produced the first services made for TV filmed in both 4K and 3-D.

Now an independent consultant, Cosgrove says 4K Ultra-HD can deliver the immersive video experience originally anticipated through 3-D without the difficulty, but only if broadcasters make sure to include higher frame rates and High Dynamic Range (HDR). Cosgrove stresses that higher frame rates and HDR are necessary to truly create an Ultra-HD experience in which viewers will find value.

4K content from TERN International's Insight TV channel.Photo: TERN International

“I think for most consumers the difference between well-shot HD and 4K is minimal, to be honest. But when you start to add in high frame rates and HDR — and that could be in HD or 4K — that’s when you start to see the difference,” he says. “There is a much more realistic look. You are getting almost as much of the color spectrum as you can see, so that’s when it starts to look more realistic, and actually gets close to mimicking 3-D. It’s not 3-D, but you can see all the colors, and all the shading — it gives you so many visual cues into depth and dimension that I think we are getting to a point with HDR and higher frame rate that we are replicating the 3-D experience, almost to the point where the 3-D technology is getting bypassed. You are getting a lot of the things that were promised with 3-D without the glasses.”

Cosgrove says that, over the last year and a half or so, a lot of 4K Ultra-HD content produced used more typical frame rates of 24 and 30fps. He said in scripted and non-fiction television there is some resistance to higher frame rates, in part because people are used to shooting at those rates.

“To really get quality HDR, and even HDR that looks good, you have to be at a higher frame rate. At 30 frames, it just doesn’t look that great, and you might even say it’s distracting. You really have to be at 50 to 60fps to take advantage of what HDR can do. There is a line in the sand that industry will have to decide about, because the TV sets will be capable, and cameras are capable. None of that will be an impediment as much as the mindset of the industry,” he says.

For Ultra-HD, Cosgrove anticipates a more modest rollout than 3-D, with channels, networks and platforms releasing 4K Ultra-HD in a steady, but measured way. He says Ultra-HD broadcasts will likely grow slowly until there is a clear business model for many to monetize it. VS