Live 4K in Remote Sports Production Is Still a Way Off

At any trade show or industry conference these days, it’s clear that the television and motion-picture industries are bullish on the future of 4K (or Ultra HD) distribution.

Movies and music videos are already being captured and limitedly distributed using 4K technology, and even episodic television has begun experimenting with the format. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that sports production —the primary ratings and revenue generator in live TV — is doing the same.

“It’s not about technology, and it’s not about equipment [in sports],” said Jerry Steinberg, SVP, field operations, Fox Sports, during a panel on the future of 4K at last week’s Content & Communications World convention. “In the television business, and I emphasize business, it’s about eyeballs. Whether it’s sub fees from homes or advertising dollars, that’s the revenue stream. We put the NFL on TV on a Sunday, and we have over 20 million viewers. If you’re talking about getting 4K sets in homes across America, it’s going to take a long time to catch up to 20 million viewers.”

The transition to 4K technology, which allows broadcasters to transmit a signal that is approximately four times the resolution of 1080p, is imminent, according to many respected industry professionals. When exactly it will happen is uncertain.

“I think it’s only a question of time. Is it four years? Is it eight years? Well, I don’t know, but it’s inevitable,” said Larry Thorpe, senior director of professional engineering and solutions at Canon. “There’s at least six manufacturers that are making 4K cameras, and they are being used in movies and experimentally in television.”

Steinberg was quick to point out, however, that it takes much more than the development of 4K (and even 8K) capture technology to get the ball rolling on live 4K sports.

“When we roll trucks into a stadium, it’s a system, and it’s much more than just cameras,” he said. “There’s a whole world of moving pieces that allow you to do what you need to do. Just [having] a 4K camera [doesn’t change that] it will take a while for the rest of it — switchers, infrastructure, recording devices — to catch up with the capture piece.”

It is a positive sign for the future, however, that the consumer side of the business is quickly embracing 4K. Sure, consumer sets are still at an unrealistic $25,000, but the cost of a 4K screen will only go down as the technology becomes more universally mainstream.

“What I find particularly interesting,” said Thorpe, “is, almost in parallel to that, the CES side is adopting it. That did not happen with high-definition television. We were laboring in the vineyard of HD production for a dozen years before anybody moved with consumer displays.”

At Fox Sports, Steinberg has already begun implementing 4K technology in NFL broadcasts, using the Sony F65 on the network’s A game. The camera is used to get better shots and replay angles of controversial plays.

“I didn’t set out to use 4K because I wanted to be a pioneer,” Steinberg cracked. “It was a way to get resolution in replays.”

Since most controversial NFL plays happen at the goal line or on the end line, Steinberg noted that, “in a perfect world,” he would have two robotic 4K cameras in opposite corners of the stadium shooting up each sideline. Fox currently uses one F65 on its A game, and Steinberg said it will be financially feasible to up that total to two within the next year or so.

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