TranSPORT 2018: Live 4K, HDR Transmission on the Rise, But Challenges Remain
Aldea, Dome Productions, Fox Networks, fuboTV, and SES discuss the state of the 4K/HDR ecosystem
Over the past three years, delivery of live 4K UHD sports content to the home has become commonplace in the U.S. and Canada, as well in Europe. And live HDR (in both 4K and 1080p) productions have increased in 2018, thanks to the efforts of a handful of broadcasters and streaming outlets. However, major challenges still remain on both the 4K and HDR fronts when it comes to transmission and delivery of these events.
At this month’s SVG TranSPORT event in New York City, industry leaders spanning the 4K HDR ecosystem — Aldea, Dome Productions, Fox Networks, fuboTV, and SES — took the stage to address the hurdles that remain in creating an end-to-end 4K HDR ecosystem, how this could impact the broadcast center, and what to expect over the next 12 months.
Dome Productions Is Leading the 4K Charge
Dome Productions has driven the technological innovation behind the sports-fueled 4K push made in Canada by Bell Media and Rogers (which co-own Dome Productions) over the past three years. In January 2016, Rogers’s Sportsnet and Bell Media’s TSN began producing NBA and NHL games in 4K, and, in 2016, Rogers delivered all Toronto Blue Jays home games in 4K. Dome has now produced more than 600 MLB, NBA, and NHL games in that resolution.
In addition, Dome Productions has begun exploring live HDR production on several sports events, including working with Concom and DirecTV on the 4K HDR production of UFC 229 earlier this month.
“When we first got into 4K, there was that promise of HDR, and we wanted to take a very serious look at that. Our ownership were very keen on where that could go, so we certainly dove in as much as we could. The technology is definitely interesting,” said Mike Johnson, senior director, engineering, Dome Productions. “Getting to 4K was relatively easy — we have a good routine, and we deliver that regularly — but HDR continues to be a bit of a challenge in terms of that end-to-end solution. Producing it is one thing, but getting it out there is quite another.”
In terms of remaining challenges for 4K production, the payload increase from a 1.5-Gbps signal for HD to 12-Gbps for 4K has posed several hurdles for Dome’s facilities, especially in the replay room. Dome’s initial 4K productions featured 4K-native replays, but it quickly shifted to producing them in HD and upconverting them because the channels available in a native-4K model are limited. Meanwhile, Dome’s 4K-compression workflow has seen a significant improvement due to the introduction of HEVC.
“On a compression and delivery side, we started [by delivering] in a quad delivery: four synchronous MPEG-4 streams. That was problematic on a lot of levels [because] we would get quad displacement,” said Johnson. “So we were really looking forward to an HEVC solution, which came this year. We are now using the Ericsson HEVC, encoder, and it’s been terrific.”
4K Set-Top Boxes, Compelling Content Are Key to Demand
The SES Ultra HD platform, which launched in 2015, is currently the largest 4K linear-TV offering in North America and has delivered several major sports events, including the 2016 Rio Olympics and 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. The platform offers 10 full-time channels, including an events channel, distributed to about 40 MVPDs across North America, representing roughly 50 million customers.
During extensive testing of 4K-content distribution, SES experimented with various formats and types of content. After early industry concerns that distributing 4K content in MPEG-4 would require a whopping 50-100 Mbps, SES has settled on about 18 Mbps for non-live sports content using HEVC.
“That [18-Mbps data rate] has been well-received by all the cable distributors because it fits very well in a 6-MHz channel. So that was the starting point,” said Steve Corda, VP, media platforms, North America, SES Video. “More recently, with live sports, we have found that we want to bump that up a little bit to about 20-22 Mbps. You get into a law of diminishing returns when you get above that. That puts a little bit more stress on the cable systems as you get into the higher rates, so they have to groom their plant accordingly to be able to fit that in.”
Corda added that two major factors will be the primary drivers of 4K adoption and demand by MVPDs: increased distribution of 4K-capable set-top boxes to the home and more compelling 4K content, especially live sports content.
“For two to three years, we’ve been waiting to see mass deployments [of 4K set-top boxes], and I think we’re starting to finally see that happen with a couple hundred thousand boxes being [distributed] out by the Tier 1 and Tier 2 [cable operators],” he said. “And then it’s about compelling content. Every time we talk to an MVPD, they want to know what is being broadcast [in 4K], what is the genre and the quality. And they ask a lot for sports; that is the compelling content. Now that we are seeing additional sports on our platform, we are starting to get an additional pull from the MVPDs. The compelling content is probably the biggest driver in building up the demand.”
Fox Sports Continues To Ramp Up 4K Efforts
Fox Sports has also played a major role in development of 4K, producing many MLB and college football and basketball games in 4K over the past two years and delivering the FIFA World Cup in 4K on digital platforms and to 4K-capable MVPD partners.
Thus far, all of Fox Sports’ live 4K shows have bypassed its broadcast facility in Los Angeles, going straight from the remote to the MVPD partners. To make this process as seamless as possible for its MVPD partners, Fox enlisted SES UHD platform to serve as the buffer between the contribution and distribution sides for live 4K sports coverage.
“As we started growing out our [4K] distributors, we became more and more challenged because it was on occasional-use capacity: it was on a different satellite every week, [which meant] a different modulation scheme and different parameters every time,” said Kelly Miller, VP, cable engineering and affiliate tech support, Fox Networks NE&O. “We reached out to SES and [partnered with them] to make a good, solid distribution platform where the satellite is there all the time and the parameters are the same.”
Via the SES UHD Platform, Fox distributed recent college football and MLB Postseason games at 22 Mbps using HEVC — a model that has proved successful, according to Miller.
4K Is Growing in South America, But It’s Still ‘the Wild West’
Managed-transmission-services provider Aldea Solution broke into the 4K-contribution game at this year’s FIFA World Cup, providing multiple rightsholders with the connectivity necessary to deliver live 4K feeds to their home nations. Many of Aldea’s clients at the World Cup were located in South America, a region Aldea CEO Lionel Bentolila 4K called “the wild west” when it comes to 4K transmission.
“A lot of the issues have to do with the different formats [for 4K and HDR],” he said. “How are we going to get the signal? How is HDR going to be encoded? Those are the difficult things they have to deal with. It always comes at the end, and we are scrambling to find the right solution. The good thing is that we have the fiber, which gives us a lot of capacity, so we’re not scrambling for the capacity. But the format and making sure that what we provide in the middle of the transmission chain is going to work from the beginning to the end — that is what everyone is struggling with.”
fuboTV Makes 4K HDR History at FIFA World Cup
fuboTV became the first virtual MVPD to offer content in UHD and HDR, when it began live-streaming FIFA World Cup matches in 4K HDR10 this past summer. It has since streamed MLB games and college football games in 4K and HDR. In addition, according to a statement by CEO David Gandler at NAB Show New York this month, the company is in the process of completing a deal with NBC Sports to deliver Premier League games in UHD.
“We did our first 4K [event] this summer with the World Cup, and it was one of the ‘lift heavy or go home’ kind of things,” said fuboTV CTO Geir Magnusson Jr. at TranSPORT. “It went really well, and consumers really liked it. It showed up that there is tremendous potential here and also a lot of challenges.”
fuboTV has built its service on 100%–cloud-based infrastructure, making the 70-Mbps 4K HDR streams it was initially receiving a challenge. In addition, the fuboTV engineering team struggled to find an encoder that could handle the 4K HDR World Cup feeds, although it did eventually bring in an ATEME encoder to get through the World Cup.
“This has been a really big learning experience for us,” said Magnusson. “We do everything in the cloud, and we have nothing on-prem. Finding a server big enough to handle that was a challenge, and, even then, we had to cut down the bandwidth variants because it just couldn’t keep up. But it is now starting to work; we are now getting much lighter [streams].”
Magnusson also discussed how the consumer side is a major challenge for 4K and HDR streaming since services like fuboTV must serve the variety of devices and platforms currently available, many of which don’t have the proper codec available to process 4K and HDR streams.
“Also, for a platform that is linear-channel–oriented [like fuboTV], having these [one-off 4K and HDR] events is adding new process and workflow to our teams,” he added. “It’s been a fun challenge but has touched us in all parts of the product and organization.”