Sports-Production Leaders Sound Off on Potential of 4K/Ultra HD

Not surprisingly, 4K/Ultra HD proved to be the big topic at the CCW Show in New York earlier this month, as has been the case at nearly every industry trade show over the past year. Although sports production has made great strides over the past 12 months in building out the 4K-production ecosystem, the overwhelming sentiment remains that a live end-to-end 4K workflow is still years in the offing.

“I think all of the vendors — Evertz, Sony, Canon, Telecast — have been doing a great job at trying to fill [our] needs with stop-gap measures,” said Kevin Callahan, director, remote operations engineering and technology, Fox Sports, during a 4K-focused panel. “But everything is an island. When we have a UHD component to a show, it is all by itself, and it is not networked with anything else. In the end, it is just a single HD-SDI feed into the live broadcast.”

Callahan and his Fox Sports compatriots have begun implementing 4K/Ultra HD technology to extract hi-res, close-up replays on its larger shows, including the NFL, MLB World Series, and NASCAR coverage. However, although workflows like these are being seen more and more on high-profile live sports telecasts, the industry faces significant challenges in developing a full live 4K workflow.

More Than Just Resolution
One of the chief concerns in advancing Ultra HD content is the recommended color space and frame rate, which differ greatly from current HD standards. The majority of the 4K demos seen at trade shows and major sports events thus far have relied on the ITU-R Recommendation BT.709 standard used for HDTV content. However, most industry leaders argue that the ITU’s newer recommendation — BT.2020 — is necessary for viewers to see a noticeable difference between standard HD and Ultra HD content.

 “One thing is for sure: it’s going to take more than just the resolution,” said Tom Sahara, VP of operations and technology, Turner Sports. “We really have to get to the recommendation 2020 and get off the 709. With Ultra HD, there is an enhanced color space, which will make the pictures more vivid. If you look side-by-side with images balanced to 709, you have to put your nose right up to the screen to see the difference. Whereas [with recommendation 2020’s] enhanced color space and higher frame rate, you see a marked improvement over HD. As an industry, we have to push hard to get there because that’s what is going to be the real differentiator.”

Callahan seconded Sahara’s notion that a higher frame rate will be integral to the development of 4K: “It’s great to have the extra resolution and be able to see what you missed by zooming in. But, ultimately, frame rate is the key.”

A Sustainable Workflow at the Compound
In addition to standards solidified and new recommendations adopted, the future of the Ultra HD format will depend largely on how quickly new compression technologies and routing workflows develop. Currently, live-sports producers must use a multiplex of four SDI channels to carry a 4K signal, reducing router I/O capability by 75%. This practice is simply not sustainable in the long term for 4K live sports production.

“Clearly, in order for live multicamera switched production to take off,” said NEP Broadcasting CTO George Hoover, “there needs to be a standard that allows us to move that signal on one cable. The current [model] is just not a long-term solution.”

Penetrating the Home
Although signal-flow challenges at the compound must be resolved, the greatest obstacle to development of Ultra HD seems to be on the distribution side. Although the HEVC compression standard promises to eventually allow distributors to more easily deliver Ultra HD content to the home, that is far from becoming reality anytime soon. In addition, the vast majority of viewers’ televisions and set-top boxes are currently not Ultra HD-capable.

“The bottleneck is always at the distribution channel to the home,” said Ted Szypulski, senior director, technology research and standards, ESPN. “So [advanced] compression will need to be utilized, of course, to get the Ultra HD picture to the home. That is going to be a challenge. What it is going to [come] down to is what it always comes down to: contract negotiations with your distribution channel. You have your means of assuring the quality of your product to the consumer. It’s a very complex topic.”

However, one of the most significant differences between the HD conversion a decade ago and the oncoming Ultra HD conversion is the popularity of streaming and over-the-top devices. Many of these devices are already processing and displaying 4K content, cutting out the middleman in the linear television model.

“In the short term, over-the-top is what everyone is doing,” said Sahara. “When you buy a Sony 4K panel, they will also try to sell you a media player that you can plug in and view Ultra HD content. We are in an interesting time because consumers can actually get Ultra HD content but we just can’t produce live content yet. So we are in that in-between world … as sports producers because our programming is live and we don’t have a live direct-to-consumer method yet.”