Home >> May 2013 Edition >> SatBroadcasting™ — 4K Is Here + Now
SatBroadcasting™ — 4K Is Here + Now
By Chris Forrester, Senior Contributing Editor

Producers must start preparing...
This year’s recent MIPtv 50th Anniversary (Cannes, France, April 6-11) is, in part, a celebration of past achievements. However, MIPtv is also looking forward to broadcasting’s next major move.

ForresterHead MIP is the twice-yearly programming market conference— the world’s largest—where content of every type is bought and sold. It is Ultra-HDTV in all its forms that headlining consumer publication around the world. While much of the buzz is being generated from the display manufacturers and the usual ‘early adopters’, there’s now little doubt that the technology is far from just being driven by the usual hype cycle—there’s genuine enthusiasm from all the main industry players.

For example, the Japanese government is planning the world’s first ultra-high definition 4K TV broadcasts as early as June of next year, just in time for Rio’s World Cup soccer competition. Japan’s SkyPerfect TYV will broadcast the soccer games in 4K. The news comes as the ‘High Efficiency Video Codec’ (HEVC/H.265) compression standard was officially ratified by the ITU earlier this year.

This new TV standard is expected to drive U-HDTV, as well as Over-The-Top (OTT) video delivery of video content via telephone and cable wires. Japan’s NHK pubcaster is still on track to launch ‘full’ 8K Ultra HDTV/2 broadcasts in 2016 and the company tested 8K from London’s Olympic Park last summer.

UHDTV/1, also known as 4K, offers definition four times higher than that of current HDTV. The technology was one of the main talking points at this year’s giant Consumer Electronics Show (CES), where all the major TV manufacturers presented their UHD-capable models.

ForresterFig1 The BBC and Sky have undertaken trials of sporting events, including the Olympics and football from Arsenal’s Emirates stadium—no commercial services announced, as of this writing. Satellite operators SES and Eutelsat have demo channels on air for Europe and Sky Deutschland is expected to make what it describes as a major announcement at this year’s August IFA consumer electronics show in Berlin. South Korea’s KBS is testing 4K terrestrial transmissions. Similar tests are occurring in Spain and Italy.

Meanwhile, the display manufacturers are ramping up production of ever-larger TV sets ready for receiving 4K broadcasts. These 4K displays, despite their current Oligarch only prices, are already selling, and savvy Hollywood producers—as well as those closer to home—are actually producing 4K content for the technology’s introduction as well as future-proofing popular material for packaging into ‘next generation’ 4K Blu-ray discs.

However, let’s be clear: 4K transmissions are not quite yet in sight. But the degree of planning now going on is surprising. Berti Kropac, who heads up Kropac Media and who shot Sky Deutschland’s 4K soccer test-footage, said, “Sport looks wonderful in 4K. It´s breathtaking and you see things that you normally would only realize if you are on the location of the recording, standing next to the cameraman. It is amazing to see a close-up of a tiger, the fur, the whiskers, the eyes. For me it is like watching 3D without classes.”

ForresterFig2 It is the same with the BBC. The BBC’s Natural History Unit (NHU) is busy filming Survival, an epic 6-part series, partly in 4K. Mike Gunton is creative director at the NHU and has a spectacular pedigree at the BBC plus an enthusiasm for 4K, especially when taken holistically as part of potential theatrical and IMAX-type releases of its output. The BBC, working with Japan’s NHK, also trialled the ‘full fat’ version of 8K at last year’s Olympic Games.

The message is echoed in Europe where the 4EVER consortium, backed by the French Ministry of Industry, look to make the current TV production and delivery chain capable of handling next-generation 4K content. The government support is helping a number of French-based companies, including compression experts ATEME, Orange Labs, France Televisions, Technicolor®, TeamCast, DOREMI, GlobeCast, and Institut Télécom ParisTech, to determine how to make 4K workflows and distribution a practical reality. 4EVER’s aim is to wrap a complete production and transmission chain by the end of this year. In Spain, transmission company Abertis trialled 4K transmissions during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona at the end of February.

Most industry observers expect 4K to first appear in a payTV environment—no surprise that established players such as DirecTV in the USA as well as Sky in Europe are paying attention to the new technology.

DirecTV’s CEO Mike White, speaking on an analyst’s call in February, was candid. “In terms of 4K, I don’t want to get into the details on our longer-term product strategies, but DirecTV has a heritage of wanting to have the best sound and pictures. We are continuing to invest in the next generation of both sound and picture. [The content has] to be shot in 4K. So, again, I think you’re probably a couple of years out. But it’s a very exciting technology, and frankly, we’re very interested in kind of how fast it will [impact] with consumers and certainly taking that into consideration in our longer-term product plans.”

ForresterFig3 In Japan, there is their confirmation that 4K will be a reality in 2014, helped by a Japanese government initiative, and more than two years ahead of the already accelerated 2016 test-transmissions of 8K. The key question is whether this government initiative will lead to a faster or earlier development of the market cycle as well as improve Ultra-HD take-up rates. Northern Sky Research said, “The [Japanese] government initiatives on the supply side will have some positive effect on the ecosystem. Developments in next-generation compression standards, which in NSR’s view is one of the most important to truly jumpstart the market, should proceed at a faster rate.”

Futuresource’s research consultant David Watkins admits that 4K still has some serious obstacles to overcome, not the least of which is the lack of content as well as an addressable audience in the shape of 4K displays. “Despite these barriers, most major TV [display] brands will likely launch 4K models over the next 12 months. Looking to the broadcast industry and payTV, the primary challenge is the increased bandwidth required to transmit 4K. Futuresource believes that there is a positive commercial scenario for consumer 4K.”

The European Broadcasting Union’s David Wood is also positive. “Ultra-HD is not just an idea or someone’s dream.  The technical standards were agreed by all the nations of the world last August.  Ultra-HD trials have already begun in Korea for terrestrial broadcasting, and these will continue.  SES and Eutelsat are making trial transmissions with satellites.   We could look forward to Ultra-HD internet trials later this year.  The ‘go’ button has been pushed.” 

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Callout1 Cisco-NDS, on when broadcasters will be ready for 4K

This is a hard question and the answer is dependent upon the demand created for Ultra HD content and how successful the TV manufacturers are in selling Ultra HD screens to the public. The demand for Ultra HD content is likely to increase rapidly over the next two years but may first be met by non-broadcast means, be it Ultra HD games, downloaded or streamed OTT content, or even user generated content from consumer cameras (Go Pros etc). In terms of true broadcast we are likely to see a roll-out start slowly in 2014 as High Efficiency Video Codec chipsets and encoders become available. Traditionally a major global broadcast event, such as the Olympics, has been used as a catalyst for the broadcast industry to adopt new technologies. Ultra HD broadcast will probably follow the same pattern.”—Guillaume De Saint Marc, Office of the CTO, Service Provider Video Technology Group, Cisco, U.K.

Set-top box makers Pace, on when broadcasters will be ready for 4K
Many of our customers are looking hard and/or trialling UHD this year.  This has been pre-empted by enabling technologies developing, such as:  U-HD camera technologies, compression technologies and the commercial availability of TV screens.  It is clear that for some the World Cup 2014 and the 2016 Olympics remain key broadcast events to target trials.  Considering the end-to- end content flow process it is likely to become mainstream 2015+.”—Darren Fawcett, Pace, Chief Technical Engineer, U.K.

The EBU’s view, on when broadcasters will be ready for 4K
Ultra-HD is not just an idea or someone’s dream.  The technical standards were agreed by all the nations of the world last August. Ultra-HD trials have already begun in Korea for terrestrial broadcasting, and these will continue. SES and Eutelsat are making trial transmissions with satellites. We could look forward to Ultra-HD Internet trials later this year. The ‘go’ button has been pushed.” 

But, no one is going to provide serious broadcast or broadband services until the Ultra-HD displays are in the public’s hands. They will need to be within reach of the public financially. There are some sets available today, but they are very expensive. To be realistic, the prices are probably not going to lead to volume sales until 2015/16. I think that’s the time we may see the first serious Ultra-HD broadcast  services. For Europe and the U.S. these will probably be Pay TV services. For Japan and Korea, which are leading the world in Ultra-HD, the services may be rather wider in nature.”—David Wood, Deputy Director, EBU Technical, Geneva, Switzerland

Kropac Media, on what’s best in 4K
All kind of sports are wonderful to see in 4K, it´s like looking through a window into the stadium, or the racetrack. You really get the feeling of being on location. But also documentaries about nature and wildlife are absolutely terrific in 4K. Movies, of course, as well as drama.  And not forgetting the commercials. What I don´t yet see in this new ultra resolution is soaps or talkshows, because you need time to create breathtaking pictures with this extreme resolution.”—Berti Kropac, MD, Kropac Media, Germany

BBC Natural History Unit, on investing for the future
We are continuing to invest in the next generation of both sound and picture. [The content has] to be shot in 4K. So, again, I think you’re probably a couple of years out. But it’s a very exciting technology, and frankly, we’re very interested in kind of how fast it will [impact] with consumers and certainly taking that into consideration in our longer-term product plans.”—Mike Gunton, BBC Natural History Unit, U.K.

DirecTV, USA, on responding to customer demands
4K is a very exciting technology, and frankly, we’re very interested in kind of how fast it will [impact] with consumers and certainly taking that into consideration in our longer-term product plans.”—Mike White, CEO, DirecTV, USA

The BBC’s view
Touching the skin, feeling the mud...”—Mike Gunton, head of the BBC’s Natural History Unit in Bristol, U.K.

When will 4K transmission start?
Looking to the future the meaning of transmission is becoming a bit blurred. Audiences now receive content in so many ways; in the living room, in the cinema, on smart phones, their laptops or elsewhere—at different resolutions and bit rates, what is meant by transmission is no longer a straightforward description.  However, crucially for us in shooting nature sequences on large format cameras we can deliver content and innovation in the pictures we produce which will be appreciated on whichever screens our audiences get to see it.

Shooting in 4K. Is the extra cost worthwhile?
“The team didn’t jump straight into the world of 4K, in fact quite the opposite. We were cautious and a bit nervous­—would the cameras be robust enough? What would the ‘aesthetic’ of the images be like? And how about all the extra data generated? Frankly, was it worth it for just more pixels?  But lots of camera testing (meticulously done by members of the Survival production team; Rupert Barrington, Tom Hugh Jones and cameraman Paul Stewart) gradually convinced us we were on to something new in terms of a look.”

“Taking courage in our hands we set off on our first 4K shoot ‘in anger’—filming elephants for Survival with veteran cameraman Martyn Colbeck.  So nervous were  we  that we took a P2Varicam  along just in case—but  half way through Martyn  emailed back saying, in colourful language, he loved the camera and what’s more the images it was producing. Sure enough back at base the reason for  his enthusiasm was there to see—the textures, the subtle and flexible application of  slo-motion and the astonishing detail made it feel like you could step into the frame and touch the skin, feel the mud the elephant was wallowing in and  all the water spraying around.  Most excitingly it suited the editorial ambition of survival perfectly—an extra dimension of connection with our subjects.”

“But as well the expansive range of frame rates and the dramatic ‘look’, it’s fair to say that we have seen benefits in many other areas—the improved dynamic range, light sensitivity and greater colour palette, and the potential to grade the RAW images has been welcomed by the photographers and proved of real benefit to our producers.”

“Also, shooting at 4K opens up creative flexibility in the cutting-room because of the amount we can zoom into a 4K shot, and still get an HD shot out of it. This allows us to get greater close-ups, create two shots sizes from one shot, to create zooms, or to go in on a static shot and pan across it to create a more dynamic image. This really hit home when we worked on a shot of a tiger chasing deer from a shoot in India. In the original, 4K shot, the tiger pounds across the plain, and occupies perhaps one-third of the frame. By zooming in, we can now create a shot in which the tiger is running at full speed, completely filling the frame from nose to tail. An otherwise impossible shot to film.”

4EVER’s view, from France
When will 4K transmissions start?

It is too early to predict anything precisely because even though TV screens are starting to become available on the market, 4K production is far from common—yet, and is tending to target the cinema industry. Besides, we think that moving towards Ultra-HDTV does not only involve spatial definition, but also temporal and colour definitions, so we can’t tell now if 4K on its own is enough to evolve towards “beyond HD” transmissions. More studies are needed, especially subjective evaluations of perceived quality. Last, but not least, compression is a crucial element in the TV transmission chain; we think that newly release standard “HEVC” first has to be deployed to envisage UHDTV transmission.”

“We are also confident that current extra cost of 4K production will decrease when more equipment becomes available, especially TV production equipment like broadcast cameras at least.
”—Maryline Clare-Charrier, “4EVER” collaborative project leader/Orange Labs”.
for Enhanced Video ExpeRience
. www.4ever-project.com.