The Live Broadcast Content Problem of 4K
Stephan Jukic – March 09, 2015
4K TV has a problem and it seems to still be a certain distance from being resolved. And no, we’re not talking about the TVs themselves.
In fact, as far as the technology and associated industries themselves go, things are looking positively rosy. The latest 4K TVs are excellent pieces of hardware, they come with more features than ever and their superiority to HDTVs is leaving the latter in the dust not just in terms of higher resolution but by all sorts of other metrics.
Furthermore, 4K TVs are now more affordable than ever and the content available for ultra HD fans is becoming more varied and numerous practically by the month.
Even better, the overall content landscape should see some more serious improvement by the end of 2015 as Netflix, Amazon and others get busy bulking up their streaming offerings. On top of this, other non-streaming 4K options like new 4K Blu-ray discs are also on the way for those who lack the necessary levels of internet connectivity for the first option.
However, and this is 4K’s biggest problem, of all the UHD content options that are coming, the one that’s lagging farthest behind and least likely to arrive is live broadcast content in full ultra HD. The canned content is already here, as we just mentioned and more of it is on the way but the live variety is nowhere to be seen and also not even around the corner.
The entire scenario that plays out all over the world every day with HD content –you turn on your TV, head over to ESPN or NBC and tune into a moment-by-moment sportscast of hardcore live-action gameplay– simply doesn’t exist in the world of 4K entertainment and this is all the more disappointing because we don’t know quite when such a vital aspect of entertainment will be possible.
And this is unfortunate because while canned TV programming on demand is great, there are some things for which live entertainment is crucially important, a pillar of support for an entire given medium. This was has always been the case with HD and for this reason, one of its biggest sellers had been the promise of watching the Super Bowl live in HD, or the World Cup, Olympics or Oscars and so on and so forth.
Thus, in order for 4K to really move forward, it absolutely has to capture a share of the live TV pie and do so as soon as possible; not in 2 or 3 or 5 years but sometime in 2015 or early 2016 if possible.
So far, the latest developments in this area are pretty meager and highly experimental.
Sky Deutschland, operating on the European market, has been playing around in this area and has so far recorded at least a couple of experimental ultra HD live broadcasts of both sports and concert events. One of these tests was done on the 2014 Ryder Cup golf tournament held last year and another test, broadcast, done in December of 2014 was of a concert of German hip-hop band Die Fantastischen Vier, conducted in Stuttgart, Germany.
However, while Sky is certainly pouring resources into the concept of 4K live broadcasts, the two above tests were extremely limited and submitted strictly for internal viewing with no public audience participation. So far, Sky doesn’t expect to start unveiling live broadcasts in UHD until at least the very end of 2015.
Closer to home, The Milwaukee Bucks beat the New York Nicks on January 15th in the USA, and while the Knicks loss to the Bucks (their 16th straight loss) was no big surprise to anybody, what was unique was the fact that this particular NBA game was the first ever broadcast live across the Atlantic to test audiences as part of an experiment done in a deal between the NBA and the media company BT Sport.
BT Sport has also already done other test broadcasts for early-stage 4K live events such as rugby games and even the same Ryder Cup that Sky Deutschland used for live sports test broadcasts last year.
In the case of the NBA broadcast done by BT Sport, the company’s filming crews were present at London’s O2 Arena with a total of 8 4K cameras that were used to capture the match live and then encode the resulting feed for streaming at a very reasonable 15 Mbps to NBA headquarters in New York City, where employees were able to watch the game completely live in full 4K resolution and even stream the match over the NBA office’s internet connection to PCs in the building.
According to those present, the feed was notably better than its HD version and looked absolutely fantastic, but only when it actually managed to work, which wasn’t 100% of the time as repeated outages and a notable delay in the “live” UHD stream were noticed. The delay at least was caused by the encoding process itself, considering that its more time consuming than what’s needed for a much lighter HD signal.
On the other hand, the raw 4K feed being broadcast to audiences in the actual stadium in London where the match was being held worked smoothly and without delay but did use a much larger amount of bandwidth that would be unfeasible for long distance broadcasts.
This is where the most fundamental difficulty of the Live 4K broadcast problem is worth mentioning. It’s just not easy to take so much raw video resolution and beam it across continents and oceans in complete real time. Even with compression done to the video, the feeds still represent a heavy data load that requires infrastructure which goes above and beyond the needs of live HD content.
This is where broadcasters hesitate on committing to live 4K broadcasts. They know that to do so would require innovation and some serious investment not only in all new camera equipment but also in new in-house editing and compression software and hardware. Furthermore, as the 4K feeds go beyond the recording studios that are on-site at a game, they would have to be sent over hardware that is often old and deal with network bottlenecks that aren’t designed to handle the data loads of ultra HD. Fixing both of these issues means even more infrastructure investment before live 4K can become available to the masses in a clean uninterrupted stream like those which already exist with HD.
This is why we are mostly only seeing a wide range of highly limited, modest or even tiny tests from numerous broadcasters. They’re still treading cautiously.
However, there is potential for live 4K video out there and particularly in countries with major penetration by really high internet connection services. Places like Asia Pacific and a select few European countries could be particularly powerful candidates for Live UHD broadcasts of sportscasts in 4K.
An excellent recent example of just such an attempt in Asia Pacific occurred with the recent ICC Cricket World Cup matches that were held in Australia and New Zealand and then broadcast live in 4K resolution to selected audiences with access to the necessary viewing technology. The 4K broadcasts in the case of ICC were limited but they were at least fed to diverse public audiences in real time.
How quickly we can see the same happen for the FIFA World Cup, the Olympics and for events like the Super Bowl in the U.S has yet to be seen, because while the Cricket World Cup took a bold step forward with 4K in 2015, the organizers of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro have decided to take a step back; they won’t be broadcasting the massively popular Games in 4K resolution and will instead focus on integrating their events with virtual reality technology, of all things.
Story by 4k.com