IBC Wrap: Broadcasters 'Face a Dilemma' on 4K TV

Sony 56 inch 4K OLED TV CES H 2013

AMSTERDAM – Do we need Ultra HD, which is four times the resolution of HD? Is it practical and achievable? Is there a viable business model? And do consumers care? These questions were debated this past week during the International Broadcasting Convention.

Stakeholders in Europe will be "early adopters" of the format, claimed Ferdinand Kayser, CCO of satellite operator SES, who predicted there would be nearly 111 million Ultra HD displays in homes by 2025."

While interest from those in the broadcast community is decidedly mixed, some -- including Sky Deutschland and BSkyB -- are already testing 4K broadcast transmission.

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Andreas Bereczky, executive vp technology and production at German public broadcaster ZDF, urged the industry not to forget HD 1080p. "It makes more sense to take the next small step, not a big jump," he said. "And we should not forget the smaller waves which will change broadcasting in the nearer future, like the companion screen. Today customers also have the possibility to consume programs and services not only on the main screen. Our task is to produce the content with the right parameters for the right device with the right distribution."

He pointed out that ZDF did not jump into 3D. "Could you have imagined if we had invested millions and millions in 3D but now no one speaks of it? I believe 4K displays will find their ways into homes but not as fast as some companies would like. In Germany we have 60 million TV sets which people have only just bought. It will be 3-5 years before we have stable technology to bring 4K to consumers."

Manufacturers clearly view 4K as a priority. Most major production, postproduction and broadcast vendors came to IBC -- which attracted an estimated 50,000 delegates from around the world -- with 4K-supported products. Vendors generally said they are starting to see interest in 4K production tools, though delivery to homes remains in question. Also, the HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) compression scheme that can support Ultra HD could be a driver and was getting plenty of attention.

During IBC, numerous live demonstrations of 4K broadcasting were hosted by various exhibitors and broadcasters to prove that Ultra HD broadcasting is technically possible.

That included BT Media and Broadcast, a division of the U.K. telco, which shot in 4K and transmitted live via satellite a Premier League rugby match in London to the Intelsat stand at the IBC. Additional partners in this test included Ericsson, Sony, Newtec and BT Sport, the telco's pay TV division that launched last month.

Sony Pictures with Sky Deutschland, 3net, SES and Pace demonstrated a live-by-satellite 4K transmission of prerecorded content, and satellite operator Eutelsat launched an Ultra HD test channel aimed at 4K set-top boxes equipped with HEVC chipsets that fed consumer Ultra HD TV sets via a single HDMI cable.

Ericsson's Giles Wilson described a move to Ultra HD programming as "moving from viewing it to experiencing it." But U.S.-based consultant Mark Schubin argues that there isn't enough of a difference between HD and 4K, saying the discussion is about "very good versus very good."

The economic and business model are of course a critical factor. To this point, Wilson argued that "it's not a question of 'Can I afford to broadcast Ultra HD?' In every market, someone will do it. Then it becomes a question of, Can you afford not to?"

U.K.-based media commentator and journalist Ray Snoddy warned the industry not to ignore the consumer, many of whom have recently invested in new TVs. "Consumers want to change their TVs as often as the phones? Dream on," he told the audience during one session.

For over-the-air broadcasters, spectrum to carry an Ultra HD signal is also a factor in the discussion. One executive from a U.S. broadcaster told The Hollywood Reporter that if the FCC is successful with its upcoming spectrum auction, "I doubt there will be enough latency to support 4K."

Jan Weigner, co-founder and managing director of German technology maker Cinegy (which announced 4K support for its products at IBC), thinks over the air broadcasters risk being cut out of the 4K delivery chain. "Broadcasters face a dilemma," he said, "The biggest 4K delivery platform by year's end will be the PlayStation 4. Many assume 4K to the home will be OTT services."

Weigner also warned that standards-setting efforts are creating a bottleneck. "[Ultra HD] evolution is happening faster than standards agreements," he said. "They need to [act]. …Otherwise we'll have market adoption of proprietary systems, and that is not a situation we want to be in again."

It's a complex topic and extends beyond the number of pixels on a screen. The International Telecommunication Union's 2012 recommendation for Ultra HD also describes creating a more immersive experience through advances in color, frame rate and dynamic range.

During IBC, global standards-setting body Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers released a 25-page Ultra HD study group report with analysis of the issues and recommendations on what the society needs to do next. One recommendation is further study of the requirements for color space conversion to and from Ultra HD TV color space and legacy color space, including requirements to standardize colorist metadata. Another recommendation is a study of audio requirements and infrastructure, including standardizing immersive audio formats to be used for Ultra HD TV and standardizing a common file format to describe immersive audio to insure interoperability. (You can download a copy of the 25-page report here.)

In related news, shortly before IBC, the Digital TV Group, an industry association for digital television in the U.K., launched its U.K. Ultra HD Forum, which will aim to coordinate U.K. requirements for the format and will work hand-in-hand with the Forum for Advanced Media in Europe (FAME), an initiative led by the European Broadcast Union, and the Digital Interoperability Forum as well as other European standards organizations.

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Chris Johns, chief engineer for broadcast strategy at BskyB and Andy Quested, the BBC's head of technology for BBC HD and UHDTV, are co-chairing the initiative.

Another question raised during this past week's debate: Does the industry need to go higher than 4K? Sony is arguably the biggest champion of 4K -- but Japanese public broadcaster NHK is pushing for 8K broadcasting as early as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. And so Sony is now also putting efforts into development of 8K, which is a whopping 16 times the resolution of HD.

Meanwhile, the digital cinema community debated what it needs to do in order to keep attracting audiences to the theaters at a time when home theater is advancing so rapidly. At IBC, they debated the pros and cons of higher resolution -- along with other potential opportunities including high frame rates, immersive sound, laser light and second-screen experiences.

IBC from the view of the cinema industry will be addressed in Part 2 of THR's IBC Wrap.

E-mail: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CG inLA