Broadcast technology experts in the U.K discuss some continuing problems with 4K

by on July 23, 2015

Stephan Jukic – July 23, 2015

London, England, an assortment of broadcast industry experts from various segments sat down recently to discuss continuing problems with 4K content and its proliferation on the market as well as to give their advice on improvements in ultra HD distribution.

The roundtable discussion of experts was hosted by Marquis Media Pertners and TVB Europe and featured panelists who shared their views on 4K UHD, the future of broadcast transmission of 4K and whether OTT services like Netflix and related will be the real future drivers of this technology.

One of the most concise summaries of the state of ultra HD was delivered by Andy Baker of the BBC, who stated that “Today, we have 4K TVs on every retailers shelves but there’s very little 4K content on display on the. The 4K content is being made but it’s certainly not being delivered except by one or two known OTT suppliers”. This last reference almost surely being to Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video, the main and best known streaming 4K content providers right now.

Furthermore, John Ive of the IABM argued that consumers in general have very limited content choices if they want native 4K video on their UHD TVs. According to him, “They can choose a size but, as we saw with HDTV when after a while it was very difficult to get a standard definition set, I think the same is happening to 4K”. While consumers can watch plenty of SD and HD content on their 4K TVs and enjoy it at a somewhat higher level of clarity thanks to most TVs’ upscaling engines, actual native ultra HD movies and shows are still rare.

The panel was in general agreement that 4K in retail locations is now becoming an extremely common thing and that the prices of both 4K TVs and their less often bought cousins 4K PC monitors are now becoming much more affordable, thus posing a much smaller barrier to consumer purchasing. However, many panel members expressed worries about the capacity of these new 4K TVs and other displays to handle the fast-moving developments that are now happening with the resolution. Why? Because in addition to 4K resolution itself, there is a growing trend towards what many are calling “second generation” 4K in which higher frame rates, higher dynamic range and “better pixels” with wider color gamut ranges turn into new innovation frontiers.

Mark Wilson-Dunn, from BT Sport (which is now on the verge of releasing an OTT 4K live sports channel to U.K and European viewers) also expressed the view that compressed 4K material from OTT providers like Netflix is still way less than perfect and that it doesn’t really reflect what 4K can truly be like thanks to the compression done to the streamed content. He further stated a worry that many consumers might be sorely disappointed by buying a premium 4K TV at a huge price only to find that the kind of native 4K content they can currently view on it looks only slightly better than high quality uncompressed HD.

On the other hand, Simon Fell of the European Broadcasting Union argued that people were also already making their own excellent 4K videos on their smartphones and with some spectacular videos to show for it. According to him, “The end results are quite spectacular. It’s the same with still images. In other words, it’s very easy for consumers to be impressed by 4K displays but I think we are seeing something of an ‘emperor’s new clothes’ in that the display will look good to them and their neighbors, no matter how close or far they are sitting from the screen. We could argue, of course, that we want improved frame rates and better resolution, but I can tell you the viewer is happy with what’s out there already.”

Codecs like HEVC (H.265) are helping movie 4K along with better transmission compression but they also distort the real quality of 4K video.

Codecs like HEVC (H.265) are helping movie 4K along with better transmission compression but they also distort the real quality of 4K video.

Other panelists argued that the entire content delivery system needs to change to accommodate 4K. Thus, according to Mark Smith of the ITV, “There’s storage for a start, then compression, and I can see us ending up with bandwidth for 4K not being that far off from today’s HD. However, while we can all agree that three years from now the technology will have improved, we still need to make that transition”.

Perhaps one of the most astute opinions in the entire 4K adoption matter came from once again from Wilson-Dunn of BT, who stated that, while some broadcasters agonized over all the problems that 4K changeovers still require, others simply made the switch in whatever creative ways they could. “The biggest issue we have, in my view, is that everyone is talking about high dynamic range and wider color gamut, instead of talking about how we can launch 4K and getting on with it. I think we risk confusing the message. The U.S is having a problem getting over the final mile of getting a signal into the home because of technical challenges. Meanwhile, a couple of Indian operators have just gotten on with it. We have to encourage the industry to get on with it otherwise we will all be waiting forever”.

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