NAB Show Wrap: The Trends That Mattered This Year

NAB show exhibition-Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of NAB

Next Gen TV. 8K. 5G. There were many trends and buzzwords as Hollywood headed for the NAB Show, which wrapped Thursday in Las Vegas — but what might be a fad and what's the future?

The Hollywood Reporter examined some of the biggest show topics during a week that saw broadcasters prepping to roll out their "next gen TV" system and streaming service providers asking Hollywood to produce more content than ever before — all while Oscar winners from films including Bohemian Rhapsody and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse drew huge crowds at the National Association of Broadcasters' annual tech fest.

Feeling the Need for 5G Speed

5G is "at the height of its buzz” cycle," proffered Shelly Palmer, president/CEO of his strategic advisory firm The Palmer Group, who moderated a featured panel about the emerging next-generation of mobile communications. 5G isn't yet readily available — communication infrastructure provider Crown Castle vp Chris Levendos projected that a wide rollout is still three to five years away — but the technology does offer the promise higher bandwidth and lower latency, meaning the ability to handle more data, and faster. Many in Hollywood view 5G as much more than an incremental update.

"It's about 20 times faster than 4G," Samsung senior vp Taher Behbehani asserted.

During the NAB Show, Panavision senior vp innovation Michael Cioni shared his vision of how 5G (and the cloud) could change production. "5G is going to come from a satellite," he said. "It means the camera will not record to magazines anymore, but to the cloud," said Cioni, adding that having the material instantly available in the cloud means that it's immediately available to collaborators including editors, VFX houses and the like. "And resolution won't be an issue, because the bandwidth is there."

The exec recommended that Hollywood start to think about a universal codec, meaning that everyone would work with the same system for encoding, decoding and compressing images.

Intel vp Lynn Comp discussed distribution and suggested that with 5G's increased bandwidth, "download time for a movie goes to under four seconds. And you can talk about 4K, 8K, and you can get more creative about immersive experiences."

On the aforementioned use of the cloud, numerous NAB speakers were in sync, arguing that with existing streaming platforms such as Netflix (which says it spends $1.4.billion per month on content creation) and new services such as Apple TV+ and Disney+ on the way, the cloud is needed to accommodate the rise in production. Craig Mumma of the cloud-based collaborative system Pix warned that Hollywood is behind the adoption curve compared with other industries and needs to embrace its capabilities. That could include many areas, such as the creation of deliverables — the combinations of 2D, 3D, 4D, HDR and local-language versions of movies that are supplied to theaters around the world. On one panel about cloud use, Pixar senior scientist Dominic Glynn related that the studio's Coco, for instance, had roughly 750 different versions for theatrical distribution.

8K Production Tools Are Here — But Are They Required?

Earlier this year at CES, every major consumer tech manufacturer showed TV displays at 8K resolution — a whopping 16 times more resolution than HD and 4 times more than 4K. At NAB, many leading entertainment tech manufacturers — among them Avid, Blackmagic, FilmLight, Red and Sony — were touting 8K capabilities, though at this stage there's very little 8K content being discussed. That's because there is no business model or distribution infrastructure — 8K over-the-air broadcasting currently isn't technically possible, and streamers such as Netflix are focused on 4K.

Only Japanese public broadcaster NHK is actively producing 8K. It launched its satellite 8K broadcasting service on Dec. 1 and aims to build an audience toward its planned 8K coverage of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Speaking with THR during NAB, NHK producer Nagamitsu Endo reported that the broadcaster currently airs 12 hours of 8K content per day, including some live sports, music documentaries and even restored film classics such as My Fair Lady. "Once [the Olympics] is released in 8K, it's going to be hard to go back for sporting events," opined Chris Chinnock, head of the recently formed 8K Association.

In the U.S. and most of the world, 8K use is very limited. According to cameramaker Red, Netflix's Stranger Things season 3 and The Innocents are among a small number of productions shot in 8K, though they are delivered in 4K (the 8K material is archived for potential future use). 

"Some people argue that with a huge number of people looking at it on a mobile device, resolution is arbitrary, but it's the opposite. The more you start with, the more you end with," explained Panavision's Cioni, saying that he believes 8K will be adopted — and even envisions a future where Hollywood moves to 16K.

Many other industry tech leaders don't believe the difference will be noticeable for most consumers. However, many Hollywood tech professionals, including Cioni, do agree that high dynamic range (HDR), or the range between the blackest blacks and whitest whites, is evident. At NAB, many felt this was the year that HDR became a reality. The discussion wasn't so much "should we" as much as it was about implementing its capabilities into production. 

Next-Gen TV Rollout Starts, and NAB Says Apple Needs to Step Up

The U.S.' voluntary "Next-Gen TV" broadcast transmission system is starting to roll out, and if a broadcaster in your region chooses to use it, you may have access to some new capabilities — and most exciting for many is the ability to receive an over-the-air TV signal on a cellphone or tablet without using a cellular service or your data plan. That will include TV series, news, live sports — everything you currently get on your television.

The new system is also about safety, bringing an advanced broadcast emergency warning system to mobile devices. And, if the broadcaster chooses, it could also offer programming in 4K and/or HDR.

These capabilities would be available on any supported cellphone, tablet or connected car, and Consumer Technology Association's Brian Markwalter reported that "we expect CES 2020 will feature a wide variety of reception devices."

But not every tech company appears to be on board. "To date, manufacturers, Apple being one, refuse to enable broadcast chips [that would allow for next-gen TV] in their devices," NAB president and CEO Gordon Smith said during his annual state of the industry address. He called on lawmakers to address the "threat" to local broadcast journalism by tech companies by "increasing regulation on the tech industry to ensure that these companies cannot use their market power to stifle completion and the financial viability of local news." Smith also urged legislators to modernize "outdated" broadcast regulations "to allow us to compete on a level playing field with these behemoth tech and pay-TV companies."

The new broadcasting system, known as ATSC 3.0, will start to roll out in the 40 largest TV markets by the end of 2020, a coalition of broadcast TV station groups announced at NAB. Given the use of the new capabilities is voluntary, it's not clear to what extend they will be offered. Testing and rollout of the new system has already started in Phoenix; Dallas; Baltimore; Raleigh, North Carolina; Santa Barbara, California; and East Lansing, Michigan. Several markets could have next-gen TV services before the end of the year, the stations announced.

The Spotlight Dims on LED Cinema Screens

A year ago, the proposal to replace cinema projection with ultra-bright, high-resolution LED video walls — led by demos from Samsung and Sony — was one of the most talked-about subjects at CinemaCon, as well as among the film community at NAB. Not this year.

As CinemaCon opened last week in Las Vegas, Samsung announced two new scheduled installations of its Onyx LED Cinema Screen in the U.S., at the Star Cinema Grill in Texas and at Warehouse Cinema by HighRock Group in Maryland — bringing the total in the domestic market to three. The Onyx screen, which was only introduced one year ago, has also had some expansion overseas, but as a disruptive technology it could take a while to deploy in a significant way.

Sony, which showed its Crystal LED screen as a technology demonstration the previous two years at CinemaCon, didn’t show the screen at this year's theater owners confab. It was instead on display again at NAB, promoted primarily for use by Fox Sports (as an announcer backdrop during the 2018 FIFA World Cup) and for corporate applications. Speaking with THR, director of sales and marketing Kevin O’Connor asserted that Sony is not abandoning the cinema space with its Crystal LED screen, but said that there is still work to be done, particularly in development of the sound system (Samsung's sound configuration has been criticized and the company has been working to improve it).

"We think it will be another year or two before we see a massive deployment in cinema," added O'Connor.

Inclusion, Diversity and #MeToo Progress

It should be noted that amid all of the technical discussion, many NAB attendees were pleased to hear speakers identify progress toward a more inclusive, diverse and safe working environment.

Saluting the “incredibly brave” women who came forward and talked about being harassed, Gloria Calderon Kellett, co-creator/showrunner of the recently cancelled Netflix comedy series One Day at a Time, said during a panel that once their stories came out, more women felt they had permission to come forward and "they felt the power." 

“Men are more cautious about how they treat women,” agreed cinematographer and Steadicam operator Sheila Smith, though she urged more mentoring for young women. "They are going to be the first that are going to be taken advantage of. I want to make the environment safe for younger women."

Smith said she's also seeing more of an effort made to hire a diverse production crew. “People want crews with more women and people of color,” she said, adding this will be a slow change as experience and training is needed. “It’s hard to find enough women and people of color.”

“It’s really important when women get positions of power to make it easier for other women,” added Calderon Kellett during one of numerous sessions where the topic was raised.

And in a sign of the times, Cindy Hutter Cavell became the first woman to receive the NAB Television Engineering Achievement Award. "There are now tens of thousands of talented women working in broadcast technology," she said, accepting the honor. "There are so many amazing women in this industry that deserve recognition, and I expect to see them on this stage very soon."