TranSPORT 2017: To 4K or To 1080p HDR? That Is the Question

Panel addresses challenges of 4K and HDR transmission, impact of ATSC 3.0

Delivery of live 4K UHD sports productions to the home has become a weekly occurrence in the U.S., Canada, and the UK. Meanwhile, live HDR (in both 4K and 1080p) production is quickly ramping up, creating new transmission challenges for broadcasters. However, the majority of these live 4K and HDR events have yet to impact the broadcast center: they are being produced in 4K in the truck onsite and sent directly to MVPDs for distribution. At SVG’s TranSPORT conference last month, a panel featuring leaders from AT&T/DirecTV, Fox Networks Group, Layer3 TV, and MLB Network addressed the growing interest in 1080p HDR over 4K, the potential impact of ATSC 3.0, and the greatest hurdles left to clear for these next-gen formats.

4K vs. 1080p HDR: Where Are We Going?
Much of the conversation at TranSPORT — and at the bulk of broadcast-industry conferences today, for that matter — centered on whether producers of live sports broadcasts should be pursuing 4K or 1080p HDR. After 4K dominated the “next-gen” discussion throughout much of 2016, largely because of a marketing push by consumer-electronics manufacturers to sell 4K TV sets, the pendulum seems to have swung towards 1080p in 2017.

Fox Networks Group’s Winston Caldwell

As broadcasters look to enhance the viewing experience without major upgrades to their broadcast facilities, 1080p HDR has promised an enticing option that allows significant improvement in the viewer experience without the need for a wholesale facility makeover.

“Due to the complexity and cost and getting 4K through the traditional linear system, it is a bit of a challenge,” said Winston Caldwell, VP, spectrum and advanced engineering, Fox Networks Group. “1080p, as a company considering next steps for the traditional workflow, is of great interest for Fox. I would also point out that the UHD Forum has determined that 1080p is HD format, but 1080p with HDR and [wide-gamut color] has been determined to be UHD format. We are happy about that because it could be an intermediate step to get there.”

That said, Fox Sports has already produced a host of 4K productions over the past year-plus, producing a pair of NASCAR races, several college basketball and football games, and two games of last month’s American League Championship Series. Caldwell also acknowledged that Fox continues to evaluate 1080p HDR for live sports coverage in the future.

What Does 4K Mean for the Broadcast Center?
During summer 2016, MLB Network was among the first to produce a weekly live 4K sports show with its MLB Network Showcase games on DirecTV (in conjunction with Game Creek Video). Although the 4K workflow in the field went off flawlessly with MLBN delivering the 4K feed directly to DirecTV for distribution, it took place on an island since the 4K signal was never integrated into MLBN’s HD broadcast center in Secaucus, NJ (although the games were recorded in 4K).

“We were really pleased with how it turned out. We delivered it to DirecTV, and everyone was very impressed by how it looked, but it never [entered our Secaucus facility],” says A.J. Hilchey, director, broadcast systems, MLB Network. “Making that change is a step function. You can’t be half-way pregnant: you can’t go from a 720p facility to a 4K facility [instantly]. There are a lot of forklift upgrades that have to happen, especially [such a large, robust] one like our facility. So there is kind of a wait-and-see [approach] right now.”

Though saying that MLBN has no immediate plans for a 4K or 1080p HDR upgrade in Secaucus, Hilchey did acknowledge that the move to 1080p HDR would “obviously be a shorter jump. To jump to 3G [infrastructure for HDR] is a big jump, but it’s not four times 3G [as required for 4K].”

From left: Layer3 TV’s Charles Hasek, MLB Network’s A.J. Hilchey, and AT&T Entertainment Group’s Sassan Pejhan

He also added that, if MLB Network were to make the monumental decision to upgrade its Secaucus facility to 4K, that would almost certainly require converting its core routing infrastructure from baseband to IP.

“We are doing a 4K show every week, but pulling the trigger to do a wholesale changeover [of a broadcast facility] is really tough. That’s what we’re wrestling with right now,” he added. “To go to 4K, I think it would be [a given] that you’re going to an IP router. I think IP would be a precursor to 4K. Any IP router today is scalable to a 4K system.”

DirecTV Continues To Lead the 4K Charge, Explores HDR
DirecTV launched 4K VOD in November 2014 and followed it up with its first live 4K presentation during The Masters golf tournament in April 2016. Since then, DirecTV has televised dozens of live games in 4K, including MLB Network Showcase and other MLB games, college basketball and football, multiple golf majors, Premier League soccer, UFC and boxing fights, and horseracing.

“For us, with satellite, we see 4K as a competitive advantage,” said Sassan Pejhan, assistant VP, AT&T Entertainment Group. “With satellite, we have plenty of bandwidth, which the cable providers do not. So we really pushed it.”

Pejhan added that DirecTV has been “gung-ho about HDR from the beginning” and is now exploring further opportunities regarding HDR content.

New Kid on the Block: Layer3 TV Service Comes 4K-Ready
Anytime new technologies are on the rise, there is going to be market disruption, and this is the case when it comes to 4K and HDR. Layer3 TV — a new premium entrant in the pay-TV market that has launched IP-based cable services in Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, Dallas/Fort Worth — aims to take on the established cable giants, creating a higher-quality service. The idea is that the best way to confront cable’s cord-cutting crisis is to make cable better: clearer pictures, better design, stellar customer service. With that in mind, all Layer3 TV set-top boxes already support 4K (and the company is exploring HDR) and offers multiple linear 4K channels and VOD content.

“We’re very excited about [4K UHD],” said Charles Hasek, SVP, video and infrastructure technology, Layer3 TV, “because we think it marries very nicely with the premium-video offering that we deliver. One of our hallmarks is providing the best video quality in the industry. 4K content is some of our most viewed content, and [consumers] appreciate that we have a platform that can deliver it to them because there are all these 4K TVs being purchased. We give people the ability to unlock that potential and see what that content looks like at that resolution. That really resonates with our customers and demand for more.”

The ATSC 3.0 Factor
One aspect likely to play a major role in the evolution of live 4K and HDR content in the coming years is ATSC 3.0, the next-gen TV standard that will support 4K UHD, HDR, high frame rate, and wide color gamut. As the U.S. broadcasting industry awaits FCC permission for stations to begin broadcasting in ATSC 3.0 (approval is expected before the end of the year, according to Caldwell), several Korean broadcasters are already delivering ATSC 3.0 broadcasts ahead of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

“South Korea have specifically deployed ATSC 3.0 so they can deliver 4K content to the home for 2018 during their coverage of the Winter Olympics,” said Caldwell, who has been involved in developing the standard. “At the same time, you also have these top-of-the-line [displays] entering the marketplace in Korea. In a single 6 MHz channel, you can deliver a 4K feed and HD feed together, which speaks to the efficiency of the system.”

Caldwell added that he expects that, once the FCC greenlights ATSC 3.0 deployment, stations will start coming online with ATSC 3.0 broadcasting in early 2018: “There are individual stations and station groups who are very eager to deploy. Once [the FCC grants permission], there will no longer be an over-the-air bottleneck. You have a system that is optimized for 4K, HDR, WGC, HFR. … Suddenly, you have this full suite of next-generation features in an over-the-air system that doesn’t constrain you.”

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