SVG TranSPORT Takeaways: When Will 4K UHD Sports Reach the Home?
The arrival of live 4K UHD sports in the home is nigh – and for many in Europe, Asia, and other nations around the world, it’s already here. With the launch of services like BT Sport UHD in the UK in August and the upcoming launch of Sky’s Sky Q set-top box in the UK and Rogers’ live 4K UHD service in Canada next year, sports fans will soon have more live 4K sports content than ever before to go with existing 4K UHD VOD services from OTT operators like Netflix, Amazon, and others. The question is – will viewers jump on the 4K UHD bandwagon?
Even if fans do embrace the higher-resolution format, the question of whether the product they receive will be up to par remains a concern. According to Akamai, the average Internet bit rate to the home is currently 12 Mbps and is on track to double every four years. This is well below the 30 Mbps (using HEVC) that 20th Century Fox and others believe is necessary to deliver high-enough quality for 4K UHD streaming without resulting in buffering or lower-res playout. On the MVPD side, the issue of legacy MPEG2/MPEG4 infrastructure in cable and broadcast facilities brings into questions whether 4K UHD will become a reality via set-top boxes anytime soon.
Nonetheless, according to IHS, 40% of TVs sold in 2016 will be 4K UHD-capable sets and all of these consumers are going to need something to watch on their fancy new sets. At SVG’s TranSPORT event earlier this month, a quartet of tech and broadcast execs on the 4K UHD frontlines participated in a panel addressing these key questions and how the industry is paving a road for the future.
What were the results of Fox Sports’ high-dynamic-range 4K tests at the 2015 MLB All-Star Game in Cincinnati?
Thomas Edwards, VP Engineering & Development, FOX Networks Engineering and Operations: I watched about six hours of HDR vs. SDR on two monitors. During the day it looked great. The clouds would come over and you would still see things you don’t normally see. You didn’t have to keep adjusting the CCU. If you panned around the stadium, you could see more detail in the lights and colors and sun reflecting off a blonde woman’s hair – all kinds of wonderful things in HDR. But when night came, they turned on the lights and someone walked into the truck and asked which one was the HDR set. We don’t light our games at night theatrically. We don’t have a key light on the pitcher and then a fill and eye light. Unlike Life of Pi, where you have 10,000 candles floating in the water in one scene, our night games look pretty flat. So it’s maybe that day games are more exciting in HDR than night games.
What is the impact of high-frame rate vs. 4K resolution to the viewer’s perspective?
Edwards: We are also looking at 120fps to reduce the motion blur. It’s possible that a 120fps 1080p120 signal may actually look higher resolution than a 4K60p channel because we reduce the motion blur of the high-action sports content by going 120fps. We have no commercial plans to do UHD for TV in any way shape or form, but that could change tomorrow. As of now, we don’t, and are continuing to do tests.
Where will we see UHD content delivered via cable to the home first?
Edwards: What is the business model and the return on investment for UHD… RSNs may have a great opportunity to go to their MVPD and say let’s put up a UHD version of this RSN. I suspect this is where we may start seeing this first – in MVPD-only channels first.
Where is the biggest hole in the 4K UHD technology ecosystem right now?
Philip Goswitz, SVP Video, Space & Communications, DirecTV: We have the ability to deliver more than 50 30-Mbps UHD channels on top of our current HD and SD programming today. There are only three questions – where’s the content? Where’s the damn content? Where’s the goddamn content? I think the belief that there are technology challenges is a bit of a misinformed myth. I think technology throughout the entire ecosystem is ready. But I think content is king; the plane is ready to take off and there is no king on board. So we are moving into working with partners who are enthusiastic about it and we are bringing our checkbooks. Forty percent of people are going to have UHD TVs coming out of Christmas and they are going to be looking for something to watch. Our goal is to have them tuned to DirecTV and have as much linear live content, especially sports content, as soon as possible.
Steve Corda, VP of Business Development, SES: I agree, it is about the content right now. I think the technology has largely been solved – surprisingly, even in the cable systems. We do an end-to-end delivery right now into cable. We have a couple of cable operators pulling down our signals right now. We took a unique approach and departed the way HD is delivered today over digital TV. We are delivering over IP via a DOCSIS 3.0 system multicast. We allocate 18-20 Mbps per channel. It seems to be acceptable to our viewers and we understand you can’t have buffering with linear TV. I know more is better, but with HEVC, we have been having good progress with that… It’s really taking the best of OTT and the best of broadcast to give a pretty much guaranteed delivery.
Can you describe the development and launch of BT Sport Ultra HD, which launched in Europe in August?
Steve Plunkett, CTO, Broadcast and Media Services, Ericsson: When we were approached by BT a little under a year ago and they said they would like to launch a live UHD 4K sports channel, we wondered how it easy it would be to build a live linear channel. And, actually, it was quite difficult. Many of the vendors we would use to build linear channels today were unable to provide any products within the playout domain, so we had source products from different parts of the ecosystem [and] lots of production infrastructure, which is not normally applied in playout. We had to write new software drivers so we could control them using traditional automation systems. We launched that in August and is carrying some of the highest profile sports content in Europe. It’s been a relatively bumpy ride to get to launch, but it’s been very stable since launch.
Would it be easier to launch a UHD channel today compared to your initial development with BT Sport UHD?
Plunkett: We have gained a huge amount of experience. Many of the vendors that were unable to provide projects in the opening six months of this year can now provide those products today. So if we were to design a channel to launch next summer, we could probably utilize the more familiar technologies from the vendors we would typically work with. Carrying quad 3G SDI is a non-trivial activity through a live facility. We would like to use IP, but IP is not quite ready. If you are building one right now, you have to make certain technical decisions around current and next generation technologies and what is viable.
What differentiates traditional MVPD’s 4K UHD services from OTT providers like Netflix and Amazon, which are already offering VOD 4K UHD services?
Goswitz: I think we have more of a conviction about live sports. Amazon and Netflix are not going to be doing live sports. People that buy [4K] televisions this Christmas are going to watch sports and we hope to be the provider of that.