With the UEFA Euro 2020 tournament and Summer Olympics both natively captured in 4K, many may have expected a surge in UHD coverage. But six years after the launch of the first 4K channels is the broadcast industry lacking in enthusiasm for UHD?

Public broadcasters in particular are not falling over themselves to launch UHD channels. Live services are scarce and there’s even evidence that rollout may be going backwards.

Satellite carriers SES and Eutelsat have both stated that their UHD channel count is down. Partly that’s because demonstration services have stopped and there aren’t the pop-up channels of a couple of years ago, notes Paul Gray, a senior research manager at consultancy firm Omdia. “It’s very hard to find UHD services in China,” he says, while in Japan “many channels carry upscaled content”.

In the US, Comcast has reduced its 4K line-up. As reported by Phillip Swann, who runs the TV Answer Man website, Comcast has stopped offering regional Chicago baseball and hockey games in 4K. In addition, the nation’s largest cable operator is not showing the French Open in 4K, which it did in 2020.

Charter’s Spectrum cable TV service, the second-largest cable operator, doesn’t offer anything in 4K. And Dish, Verizon, Optimum and FuboTV offer just a smattering of live events in 4K, mostly from Fox productions.

UEFA_EURO20164 4K camera

Nock: “4K adoption in linear appears ‘slow’ because of the early adoption of 4K by OTT.”

Swann notes that satellite platform DIRECTV now carries more live 4K programming (including the French Open) than any other TV provider in the US, streaming services included.

NBCUniversal is touting its live coverage of the Tokyo Games in the full package of UHD HDR and Atmos, but peek beneath the marketing and you realise that it is only carrying HD 1080p feeds back to the US. By far and away the majority of its audience will still be served in SD, albeit this time in HDR.

Nonetheless, 4K TV sales had a great year in 2020, driven by stay-at-home orders. 4K is now effectively standard on most larger screen TVs, according to Futuresource Consulting. In the US, 32 million 4K TV sets were sold in 2020, a record, 23% growth YoY.

4K content is also widespread among the major SVODs, with nearly a third (31%) of all subscribers to Netflix paying for its Premium 4K plan (up 6% on 2019). The total number of global 4K SVOD subscribers capable of accessing the content on their 4K TVs rose from 209 million to 384 million in 2020 [all stats Futuresource].

“UHD was always going to be a treat,” says Gray. “The question was exactly how many people would want it and pay a premium.”

So, what’s going on?

Comparing SD-HD with HD-UHD

Mainly it would seem our expectations for the speed of 4K rollout are unfair, certainly if you make a straight comparison between the six years of its existence and the 2006 to 2012 period of SD-HD ramp-up.

After all, only around a quarter of channels worldwide today are in high definition - 20 years after HD’s launch. “Local news still isn’t broadcast in HD in the UK, even on satellite, forcing consumers to choose SD services, let alone the option of 4K,” notes Futuresource analyst David Sidebottom.

Arguably, the production of content in 4K has been faster than it was for HD, driven by demand from streaming TV providers.

“OTT/SVOD delivery did not have the limitations that linear channels had for having all the content on a channel being one resolution,” says Ian Nock, founder at consultancy Fairmile West (giving personal views to IBC365 and not aligned here with the Ultra HD Forum of which he is chair of the Interop Working Group).

“4K adoption in linear appears ‘slow’ because of the early adoption of 4K by OTT.”

SVOD providers could trickle out content targeted at each device type rather than wait for large-scale adoption, he argues. “They did not have to wait for standardisation or adoption to take place.”

Linear broadcasters, by contrast, are still limited by the ‘all devices’ restrictions that meant they needed both adoption and standardisation.

“4K adoption in linear appears ‘slow’ because of the early adoption of 4K by OTT,” Ian Nock, Fairmile West

“In my view this shifts the period of equivalency for HD/4K comparisons from 2006-2012 to 2018-2024 instead,” adds Nock. “This actually makes HD to 4K adoption qualitatively better than the SD to HD adoption because of the very early adoption that OTT made possible.”

This isn’t the only reason that traditional broadcasters appear to have been slow to the 4K party. Upgrading all the elements required for production and delivery chains is neither easy nor cheap.

“It’s a costly upgrade pathway with limited monetisation opportunities for PSBs… after all, a 4K UHD advertisement will generate the same revenue as one broadcast in HD,” says Sidebottom. “Furthermore, there’s a decision to be made between [legacy] SDI-based equipment and newer IP-based studios. Broadcasters will want a single upgrade path to 8K and new opportunities such as VR, and IP-based workflows offer the most flexible route forward.”

Costly complex upgrade path

A number of broadcasters are still struggling with the ‘how’ of trying to deliver 4K and HDR content over terrestrial networks which were designed for a single analogue channel in a restricted (6MHz/8MHz) spectrum.

“In an environment where UHD has to be simulcast with existing SD and HD, only a limited number of channels can be broadcast in UHD,” explains Thierry Fautier, VP video strategy at Harmonic, in the SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal. “In some cases, instead of an allocated spectrum for a 24/7 UHD broadcast, only a part-time channel through a time slot system is available.”

This is particularly true in the US market, which Nock says is “notorious” for under delivering and over selling what they produce.

“HD is regularly being used to describe 720p content rather than 1080, strange messing around with capturing in HD and then upconverting to 4K for transmission, and over-compressing content,” he says. “You just have to compare bitrates used in broadcast in the US compared to bitrates in Europe - in like-for-like compression methodologies – it’s not uncommon to see 30% to 50% less bitrate used in the US, which has a direct impact on quality.”

Read more: UEFA goes remote at scale

The rigidity of the legacy broadcast environment “hurts”, Nock says, and is something that OTT/SVOD providers don’t have to deal with. Driving forward with hybrid or IP strategies would solve those issues and several big players have identified that they are only investing in 4K/HDR delivery over IP-based mechanisms.

“With the advance of low-latency schemes for OTT, it is now possible to mix and match broadcast and OTT without a noticeable difference in delay between the two delivery mechanisms,” says Fautier. “Broadcasters can offer a UHD experience 24/7 using other delivery channels for UHD, while HD (1080p60) is transmitted over the air.”

This is what Sky, BBC, Liberty Global, BT and DT among others have grasped. “Those who only have traditional broadcast infrastructure routes are the ones who look to have lost interest,” says Nock, “but really they are blocked by limitations in not having the vision or the distribution capability to look towards IP as the primary delivery mechanism in the future.”

“As we see enhancements to IP infrastructure over the next few years, we’ll start to see much more 4K UHD content on screens,” Chuck Meyer, Grass Valley

For Chuck Meyer, technology fellow at Grass Valley, the question of IP versus SDI “isn’t really material” to driving 4K. “The migration towards IP-based infrastructure enables easier adaptation to new content formats and provides an on-ramp to the cloud,” he says. “Overcoming challenges around bandwidth capacity will, of course, help enable higher-resolution content creation. So, as we see enhancements to IP infrastructure over the next few years, we’ll start to see much more 4K UHD content on screens.”

It’s better pixels that count

The ramp in resolution on its own proves no real incentive for consumers or for broadcasters. Netflix understands this by bundling its Premium 4K tier with more streams, which has a real value for family consumers.

Meyer adds: “Most viewers at home won’t reap the rewards of 4K pixel quality as it takes an 80in screen to truly benefit from 4K video.”

Adding in High Dynamic Range and Wide Colour Gamut, however, does make a compelling uplift – but to HD just as well as UHD services. “HD-HDR is a very pragmatic approach which maximises the value of scarce bandwidth,” says Gray.

Meyer agrees: “Broadcasters see the value of HDR and enhanced colour space, and they also know that they can deliver that more cost effectively at 1080p than they could do at 4K. A large proportion of US and European broadcasters are looking to provide content at 1080p 50/60Hz. For many, their OTT streams are set up for 1080p, so except for on-demand content, many broadcasters wouldn’t see the benefit of increasing their bandwidth requirements to facilitate 4K delivery. Integrating HDR and WCG into 1080p content means you can deliver a stunning quality picture without any increase in bandwidth.”

HDR is also more challenging to produce in a live environment than for post-produced programmes. Nonetheless, the UHD Forum expects an increase in UHD/HDR production and distribution for all major sports events.

Benjamin Schwarz, Communications Working Group chair, Ultra HD Forum, says the question is how UHD/HDR live can scale for smaller events. He says: “Initial approaches of using separate, parallel production pipelines are not sustainable. Broadcasters are experimenting, developing and gaining confidence in workflows that derive SDR from UHD productions, significantly reducing cost and complexity. This simplification will allow them to produce live UHD/HDR content at scale.”

For the Ultra HD Forum, a service can be considered ‘Ultra HD’ if it features 4K resolution and/or HDR. By that metric, it calculates that the number of such services grew 30% year on year between 2015 and the end of 2020 – including during the pandemic-induced slowdown. Last year, for example, seven UHD services carried the French Open from Roland Garros, and for the event just gone it rose to 16.

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Nearly a third of all Netflix subscribers pay for SVODs’ Premium 4K plan 

UHD expectation

“Broadcasters are sensitive to consumers’ perception of their brand,” Schwarz says. “As their audience becomes accustomed to UHD/HDR with SVOD and [soon] live sports, not offering HDR carries the risk of being perceived as a lower-tier service provider.”

Consumers still won’t pay more for 4K UHD HDR, but it is becoming an expectation. “4K/HDR is a comfort factor,” Nock says. “It is the absence of it that is the issue. Customers won’t pay more for it – just like they did not want to pay more for colour over black/white – but you will need to have it to be competitive.”

The early fixation on pixel count, not least among TV set manufacturers, continues to have a detrimental impact on UHD rollout.

Gray contends that too little time and effort has been spent on demonstrating the UHD “experience” to consumers. CE brands generally repeated the mistakes of 3D, rushing to bring products to market without helping a content chain to develop, he feels. They then muddied the waters in the stampede.

“Time and again perception research on ordinary consumers/viewers shows that HDR has most impact,” he says. “HDR works on any screen size, at any distance and is far more noticeable than resolution.”

Read more: Delivering UHD/HDR: Rising to the challenge of increasing demand

Yet only around 7% of UHD LCD TVs have a powerful backlight with enough zones to achieve the high contrast necessary for HDR. The remainder are essentially ordinary HD-grade backlights. At the same time, Omdia research with the UHD Forum shows that 47% of UHD operators transmitted in SDR.

Gray highlights lessons from the audio market which repeatedly saw the failure of formats superior to CD. “Consumers either couldn’t hear or wouldn’t pay for the difference,” he says. “Eventually the convenience of MP3 players won out.”

Now audio higher performance is back. There is a focus on the experience (vinyl) and a set of decent headphones costs more than a 32in TV. This was a long haul but the result of careful execution and thoughtful focus on the experience, he says. “The risk is that UHD is the new SACD, fixated on pixel count and technology rather than a heightened sense of immersion.”

Patience is the key

These differences all together paint a picture that the comparison between the SD to HD adoption and HD to 4K adoption is very hard to do, and in many respects the comparison makes 4K/HDR adoption look slower than it really is.

“Once you compare like for like it has been faster than expected, just that because of the different conditions it looks slower,” Nock says. “We need to be a little more patient maybe.”

The UEFA Euros and the Olympics will undoubtedly send the message that the technology is mature and ready to be rolled out on a larger scale. It should also provide the ability for viewers to compare 4K vs 1080p with HDR and WCG.

“I think it’s far too soon to call 4K a failure,” Meyer says. “4K screens are now the standard for what is shipping to viewers worldwide, so it is on the right track. As is commonplace, demand for content will drive adoption. After a hotly anticipated summer of flagship live sports events produced in 4K and HDR, we may have to wait until 2022 to get the full picture. Patience will be key and the results will be worth it.”