The 4K format, also known as Ultra HD, is widely seen as the future of broadcasting. It takes its name from its resolution, not 4,000 pixels but actually 3,840 × 2,160 pixels. The quality change is dramatic: 4K’s eight million pixels display is four times what the 1080px HD format currently allows. However, both content producers and consumers will have to wait a while, as experts and producers explain the advantages but also the challenges of the format at MIPTV in Cannes.
As an introduction, Michael Chabrol, director of marketing and innovation at Eutelsat, whose satellites broadcast more than 5,800 TV channels, forecast a bright future for 4K.
Still, only half a decade away, the year 2020 seems a long way to go. For content producers and channels, hurdles remain.
For producers, cost is key
“If it were cost-neutral, I’d chose 4K over HD,” admits Andrew Cohen, BBC’s head of science, a department he says is known for its early adoption of technologies. But the cost of post-production and data management is tricky, Cohen adds, for what he calls a ‘beautiful technology’.
His deputy, Mark Hedgecoe, concurs. For him, the quality of shooting 4K and then “down-converting” it to broadcast the footage in HD is far superior than footage originally shot in HD. In addition, despite the cost, the technology has great advantages for film crews. The BBC duo said 4K can act like a virtual steady-cam, allowing for “punch-in” to stabilise footage, and do cutaway, even on a single shot in rough conditions. This makes it ideal for shooting things likely to happen just once, such as wildlife scenes, a staple in BBC documentaries.
Hedgecoe says the uplift in prices from post-processing companies working on 4K reminds him of the early days of HD. The parallel goes further. The shift to 4K is equivalent to the shift of filming in HD, in terms of hardware and software changes too, according to Akihiro Nakata of the Japan Cable and Telecommunications Association (JCTA).
“4K cameras are getting affordable,” says Nakata, before adding that was not yet the case for editing and post-processing equipment associated with the technology. So the 372 members of JCTA have pooled their resources, he said, allowing their 4K material to be centrally-edited in Tokyo.
Shinichi Nagano, deputy head of programming at Japan’s public broadcaster NHK, estimates than shooting in 4K costs 50 percent more than shooting in HD. And if the footage contains CGI, costs can rise up to three or four times.
They all hope technological advances will bring the processing costs down in the future but they remain a burden on the industry today.
Eric Scherer, director of Future Media for France Télévision (FTV), told euronews France’s public broadcaster is in on the ranks too. “We are interested in Ultra HD of course. In our R&D department, we experiment with it.”
One of France’s first real-life experiences with ultra-HD was FTV shooting and broadcasting parts of tennis tournament Roland Garros in 4K last year. An experiment which will be repeated for this year’s edition. However, he echoes the speakers: “The issue is the cost.” Yet, as Amazon and Netflix plan to invest the format heavily, traditional TV channels need to remain alert.
There is also still little 4K content to broadcast and watch. In Japan, Skyperfect JSAT has launched two 4K channels, one pay-per-view, the other for sports and documentaries. The quest for 4K content can be “extremely challenging,” admits JSAT 4K channel producer Takehiro Karube. In March, they had 40 different programmes and plan for the future to increase their live events broadcasting. So far, they have some music performances and one game of J-League, Japan’s professional football league, per week.
Budding consumer interest
Are the viewers ready for the next step? “The viewers are not shouting for 4K,” says BBC’s Hedgecoe. At the end of 2014, about four percent of the TV-owning UK households owned a Ultra HD screen, according to a recent Euromedia report on UHD.
But its popularity is rising: 39 percent of the households who own a TV have heard about 4K. Worldwide, the report, citing research from consulting firm Futuresource, writes that shipping of 4K sets is expected to reach 11.6 million units in 2014, a 700 percent increase year-on-year, with China driving 70 percent of the demand, down from 83 percent in 2013. By 2018, the report forecasts 100 million units will have been shipped.
Figures disclosed at MIPTV by journalist and consultant Chris Forrester show an upshoot in demand in Europe, as affordability of 4k increases.
The price of a 50’ Ultra HD screen has come down significantly between December 2013 and December 2014. In 2014, in France, Germany and the United Kingdom, a total of 608,000 4K displays have been sold, about 200,000 in each country, all three far ahead of Italy, Spain or Ireland.
The total sales in the trio of France, Germany and the UK reached 882,000 between February 2014 and February 2015. And if the sales collapsed in February 2015, the reason is not lack of demand but rather lack of screens in stock, according to Forrester, as retailers could not keep up with the demand.
The journalist said experts expect 60,000 units to be sold on average each month in the three countries in 2015, so that in the end of the year, a million units will have been sold in each territory.
However, more demand for screens does not mean more programmes from broadcasters, as long as production costs stay high. In addition, 8K is already on the horizon. 8K cameras have shrunk dramatically, the most recent weighing two kilos against several dozen only years ago. Sony has 4K action cameras light enough be flown by drones. The company has invested a lot in the technology, and was a co-sponsor of this debate on 4K at MIPTV.
Nevertheless, on the long run, big players are gambling on 8K. Among them, NHK plans to shoot and broadcast the 2020 Tokyo Olympics games in this format.
Sarah Carroll, Futuresource’s director of sales, commenting in the Euromedia report, said: “There is speculation as to whether the window for 4K will be short-lived.”
Will we skip 4K altogether?