Ramping Up for Primetime: 4K Makes a Smart Entry Into Sports Production

By Geoff  Stedman, SVP, StorNext Solutions, Quantum

The 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil represented an enormous step forward for 4K. Over the course of the tournament, three matches — including the final — were produced and presented in 4K. As the most comprehensive coverage of a live event in 4K up to that time, this milestone reflected not only growing consumer demand for higher-resolution content but also the evolution of the systems and workflows facilitating 4K content creation and delivery. For those content producers considering making the shift to 4K themselves, the high-profile 4K initiative in Rio raised many questions about how to get started on the right path to 4K.

Realizing 4K’s Potential
Live sports today are big-budget productions requiring the highest quality in broadcast television, and new ultra-high-definition (UHD) formats offer enormous benefits in creating compelling and engaging coverage. The benefit of working with 4K/UHD formats amounts to much more than providing higher-resolution images on new 4K television screens.

Using these formats in production, broadcasters can create a much richer broadcast for viewers watching on HD screens. With much more data in every frame, it becomes possible to zoom in and focus on areas of interest — while maintaining HD quality — in ways never before possible. The increased data also means sharper images in slow-motion replay, giving fans a better look at key moments in an event. (Officials across professional sports already take advantage of this technology to make better calls.)

In short, the potential of 4K/UHD formats to enrich broadcasts and enhance the viewer experience easily justifies the investment in 4K/UHD equipment and workflow. However, because there is no tolerance for failure in sports broadcasting, it is clear that the move from HD toward 4K sports production must be undertaken thoughtfully.

Deploying More-Robust Tools
Adoption of 4K/UHD formats has the potential to disrupt workflows, strain existing infrastructure, and require costly unplanned upgrades. Although the technology, tools, and workflows supporting 4K services have, by this point, been quite well refined, broadcasters still face challenges in bringing the right pieces together to ensure a successful transition to 4K.

Naturally, the cameras, editing platforms, and finishing tools used to create higher-resolution content must be capable of handling more pixels. As the industry shifts toward UHD content, the tools used by production teams will also need to accommodate wider dynamic range and higher frame rates. A few vendors have already brought such equipment to market, but broadcasters need to ensure that, in addition to meeting high standards for performance and reliability, the equipment and software they choose supports their desired workflow and enables high-quality production work.

Handling New Codecs and Bitrates
Broadcasters today have many options for capturing 4K images and working on them in postproduction, and the codec and bitrate chosen will have a direct impact on the infrastructure needed to support the production workflow. This impact is significant.

For example, a single uncompressed 4K stream at 24 frames per second (fps) can demand more than 1 gigabyte per second of data throughput, and throughput demands increase further when broadcasters begin working with higher frame rates. With an understanding of format requirements, the broadcaster can design an infrastructure that will effectively support the work it expects to do, without the need for time-consuming format conversion.

Considering Workflow
Another extremely important part of getting ready for 4K is understanding what kind of workflow is most appropriate, which applications production teams will use, and what type of underlying infrastructure is necessary to support the tools in the desired workflow. The trend toward collaborative production environments means that teams of people (often geographically dispersed) likely will perform simultaneous production tasks on stored content.

However, storing all the data generated by 4K/UHD sources on expensive fast storage can be cost-prohibitive. Instead, to keep costs under control, broadcasters must have the means to steer the right content to the right storage tier. Not all storage systems offer this capability.

Building Adequate Infrastructure
With 4K/UHD formats, broadcasters must be prepared not only to manage much more data in every frame but also to ensure that their infrastructure can keep up with demand. The ideal storage system enables a seamless mix of high-performance and high-capacity discs, with content moving smoothly and transparently between them to support the work of the creative team.

Although facilities will use a combination of IP- and Fibre Channel-connected workstations for various tasks in the workflow, only those workstations with Fibre Channel connections can provide the high quality of service and peace of mind so valuable in sports production. Integration of best-of-breed components further ensures that the system will deliver the exceptional performance demanded.

A scalable and adaptable system is essential, because it will be able to grow as production tools evolve and as the broadcaster produces video in different versions for distribution across different geographic areas, as well as for mobile and Web versions, archives, and compliance and air-check tasks.

Bringing Archive Into the Mix
The move to 4K/UHD also has an impact on archive systems, which must be able to accommodate the much larger files being produced. To handle this challenge cost-effectively and ensure that content is stored securely for future use and re-monetization, broadcasters can bring tape archives into the shared-storage mix. Advanced storage environments offer users the option of accessing content on more affordable tape archives as if it were stored on disc. It thus becomes much easier for the broadcaster to use these assets to add value and interest to sports coverage.

For virtually every sports broadcaster, the question of moving to 4K/UHD is not one of “if” but rather one of “how.” The potential gains in production quality and competitiveness that can be achieved with this shift are simply too great to ignore. With wise investment in systems and infrastructure that can support evolving 4K/UHD workflows, broadcasters can take advantage of these compelling benefits to offer a superior broadcast product and better protect and leverage the valuable content they create.