Two of this summer’s major footballing events are set to be captured in HD HDR rather than 4K UHD. Adrian Pennington asks if this is the start of a downward trend for 4K broadcasting.

Sports broadcasters have given up on 4K UHD for the time being at least with the UEFA Champions League Final and this summer’s European Championship both being produced in 1080p HD HDR as the host production format.

The 2024 Champions League Final will be held at Wembley

The 2024 Champions League Final will be held at Wembley

That’s a significant reversal of more than a decade-long trend to up the ante in terms of broadcast resolution with each successive major tournament.

The Champions League Final has been broadcast in UHD since 2015 and the Euros since 2016 (then 2021) but now there’s been a rethink.

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Nor is UEFA an outlier: “We see similar discussions in the US, where Amazon Prime is on 1080p HDR track for Thursday Night Football, while WBD is on 2160p60 HDR for the Champion’s league, and the same WBD/TNT decides to put the UEFA final in 1080pSDR,” says Thierry Fautier, media technology consultant and formerly of Harmonic.

One reason is technical. If UHD cameras were used as source routing in a standard (non-IP) outside broadcast truck they would typically be distributed as four links using 3G-SDI (Serial Digital Interface). This Quad Link 4K/UHD signal needed careful monitoring to ensure sync when combined on output and made the work of the OB technically more challenging.

However, the BBC and others have successfully demonstrated it is possible to do produce a single workflow and output both UHD HDR and HD SDR.  UHD could also be produced with upscaling.

4K vs HD HDR

The main reason is the lack of broadcaster/rights holder interest. Eight years after BT Sport became Europe’s first 4K broadcaster few others have followed suit. The cost to buy kit, refresh, rip and rewire studios and OB vans let alone buy satellite transponder space is an expense few could justify when viewers were unwilling to pay a premium for the visual uplift.

More tellingly, the visual uplift in resolution is not a huge leap when full HD High Dynamic Range (HDR) enters into the equation. Taste tests of HD HDR versus 4K suggested that viewers preferred the sharper contrast and detail in light and shade in the HD version.

Add to that BT Sport’s takeover by Warner Bros. Discovery which closed in September 2022. BT Sport, like Sky Sports before it, had planted a flagpole as the most consistently innovative broadcaster of its generation. Where Sky Sports led on HD, on-screen graphical presentation and dabbled in stereo 3D, BT Sport pioneered 4K, Dolby Atmos and experimented with VR with plans for 8K broadcasts thwarted by the pandemic.

WBD brand TNT Sports, which is covering the Champions League Final as host broadcaster from Wembley, is not averse to innovation but it is choosing to put its firepower into other areas. This includes virtual presentation studios the likes of which we’ve seen at recent Olympics, its remote ‘holographic’ style interview studio ‘Cube’ which features at tennis tournaments and richer data insights gleaned in real-time from athletes and equipment, as showcased during the Tour de France.

Coverage produced for digital distribution online and social media is another highly significant area of production that WBD (through Eurosport) and rights holders like UEFA, FIFA and Wimbledon are putting more and more resources toward.

Paris 2024 will, however, be produced in UHD HDR and 5.1.4 immersive audio (alongside extensive social media and digital output) by the International Olympic Committee’s production company OBS, in part because of demand for the format in Japan and by NBCU in the US. It’s not clear if the BBC will offer a UHD channel as part of its summer coverage.

Speaking at the 4K HDR Summit last November, Ursula Romero, Executive Producer at International Sports Broadcasting (ISB), said: “We are constantly questioning whether we should broadcast in 4K and HDR. It’s a perpetual question mark because there is a big gap between producers and consumers.”

Her reasoning was that younger audiences care about things other than resolution – or indeed watching on the main household TV. “Everything revolves around social networks and they are now looking to watch sports by the minute and by the second, even in vertical format.”

Yet, Isidoro Moreno, Head of Engineering at OBS said at the same event that Paris 2024 will consolidate 4K-HDR as the “top” TV standard for the next decade.

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Most viewers won’t notice the lack of UHD coverage from either UEFA event. Indeed, the widespread use of cine-style cameras at the Euros will provide a cinematic quality to that production that viewers have not seen before.

The industry continues to work on an 8K future. NHK has been in this business for nigh on two decades having demonstrated the possibility as far back as London Olympics 2012.

“We are seeing 8K being used further and further into the production process,” said Juan Reyes, director of operations, 8K Association, and moderator of the “8K Technology and Its Impact on the Production Process” panel at the NAB Show, as reported at TV Tech.

There will also be an end to end live 8K stream produced during the Paris Olympics, but it appears that the industry has taken a reality check on delivering resolution for resolution’s sake.

Many in sports broadcasting have long called for greater clarity in viewing live sports action by increasing the frame rate. High Frame Rates (HFR) are already in the UHD spec with 120fps displayed at 120hz the target. 

While shooting, recording and transmitting HFR may be relatively straightforward (arguably more so than HDR), there is a complication: How to achieve backward compatibility with Standard Frame Rate TV sets and transmission systems? At the moment there are two approaches to this, with European-led DVB standard and US-led ATSC solving this in different ways. Yoeri Geutskens, UHD evangelist and product marketing manager goes into detail about this here.

It could be that R&D and investment in higher frame rate as part of the HD HDR package becomes the next goal for sports.

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