HomeMoreHDR with 4K Now a Reality In Sports and Other Services

HDR with 4K Now a Reality In Sports and Other Services

Handful of UHD Launches Suggest Impasse to Next-Gen TV Migration Is Coming to an End

It looks like the next-generation TV log-jam stemming from market confusion over how to factor 4K Ultra HD and HDR into new content offerings is finally breaking up.

Guy Laurence, president & CEO, Rogers Communications.

After a year-long gestation during which premium content providers of every description have been trying to come to grips with the opportunities and challenges surrounding 4K UHD and HDR (high dynamic range) things are suddenly starting to move. A handful of big providers are leveraging both technologies to maximum effect in new service launches while several others are launching 4K with plans to get HDR off the ground before the year is out.

It remains the case that most content suppliers and distributors are still in a holding pattern waiting for more clarity on HDR before introducing 4K on grounds that 4K adds little value without HDR. But, with the HDR situation about as clear as it’s going to get for a while after significant progress on HDR consensus building, competitive pressure from entities forging ahead with HDR as part of their 4K offerings could move the rest of the market to 4K and HDR sooner than many anticipate.

More Clarity on Specifications

The multi-spec chaos in HDR smoothed out a bit at the outset of 2016 with an announcement by the Ultra HD Alliance that it was going to issue “Ultra HD Premium” labels to help consumers identify 4K TV sets that meet specifications the group has agreed on as baseline requirements for HDR. These closely match the HDR 10 baseline specs in the two-tiered approach defined by the previously reported Blu-ray Disc Association’s Blu-ray UHD standard.

The UHD Alliance specs include:

  • Image Resolution: 3840×2160
  • Color Bit Depth: 10-bit signal
  • Color Palette (Wide Color Gamut)
    • Signal Input: BT.2020 color representation
    • Display Reproduction: More than 90% of P3 colors
  • High Dynamic Range
    • SMPTE 2084 EOTF (Electro Optical Transfer Function)
    • A combination of peak brightness and black level suited to two display technologies, which is to say, either:
      • More than 1000 nits peak brightness and less than 0.05 nits black level for LCD LEDs (liquid crystal/light emitting diode displays)
        Or
      • More than 540 nits peak brightness and less than 0.0005 nits black level for OLEDs (organic LEDs).

These specs don’t endorse any particular branded HDR template but encompass most, as reflected in the UHD Alliance membership, which comprises backers of disparate HDR systems, including Samsung, Sony, Dolby and Technicolor as well as other ecosystem players such as content producers and distributors. While Philips, another HDR template innovator, isn’t a member, Technicolor and Philips have announced they are combining their techniques onto a single HDR delivery roadmap, including content creation tools, encoding and decoding software and implementation support, which, presumably, will fall within the specs set by the alliance.

But these and other standards efforts such as Blu-ray UHD don’t resolve the question of which HDR template will be applied to any given piece of content. From a distribution perspective, MVPDs and OTT providers must either choose to support content specific to a selected template or provide all the processing and streaming support essential to making it possible to deliver an HDR-enabled program to all users who have purchased a UHD Alliance-compliant TV set. This is a challenge that distributors and their platform suppliers are now addressing with at least one such supplier already claiming, on background, that this multi-HDR template processing capability is now part of its processing system.

With such tools at hand, early movers among distributors can proceed with confidence they can neutralize the template diversity to provide subscribers HDR-enabled content on a broad range of HDR-capable TV sets that are finally beginning to enter the market. Ultra HD Premium-compliant LCD/LED and OLED TVs are now available or soon will be from LG, Panasonic, Sony and Samsung.

As Paul Erickson, senior analyst at IHS Technology notes, consumers are purchasing 4K TV sets at a rapidly accelerating rate. “Annual worldwide shipments of Ultra HD TVs are expected to grow nearly 719 percent over the next several years according to IHS’ forecasts, from nearly 12 million in 2014 to nearly 96 million in 2019, with over 300 million in use by the end of 2019,” Erickson says.

Now, he adds, as they shop they’ll be given guidance as manufacturers tout HDR-capabilities with the newest sets. “For the many mainstream consumers looking to make sense of the various terminologies, acronyms and feature descriptions at retail, standardization efforts such as the UHD Alliance’s ‘Ultra HD Premium’ can reduce consumer confusion and help ensure consistency of both buyer expectations and the delivery of the end experience,” he notes.

4K Service Launches with HDR

It comes as no surprise that one of the early movers in HDR content distribution is Sony, given the company’s strong interest in pumping sales of HDR-enabled TV sets. But its just-launched Ultra 4K streaming service is an electronic sell-through platform rather than a subscription or rental service.

Leading the way among traditional entertainment outlets, Rogers Media, a division of Canada’s Rogers Communications, says it will broadcast all Toronto Blue Jays home games over its Sportsnet service in 4K and HDR. This appears to be the largest commitment anywhere to live broadcasts of HDR-enhanced 4K content.

Rogers also says it will broadcast about 20 NHL games in 4K without HDR and that it will offer 100 hours of 4K content on the new OTT premium service shomi jointly backed by Rogers and Shaw Communications. Rounding out the 4K options, Rogers has forged a deal with Netflix to support high-quality delivery of its content, including 4K, to broadband customers and also to pay TV subscribers who are equipped with the latest set-tops.

Rogers has laid the network foundation for this aggressive 4K strategy with rollout of gigabit broadband service starting in Toronto and extending across its entire footprint by year’s end, says Rogers Communications president and CEO Guy Laurence. “With our Gigabit roll out, customers can watch TV in 4K and still have all their devices in their home streaming movies and shows with clearer picture quality and less buffering,” Laurence notes. The company is offering the bundle of Rogers 4K TV, 4K set-top and Ignite Gigabit service with unlimited usage for $149.99 a month.

Netflix, which led the market with launch of 4K UHD content at the end of 2014, is also taking a lead role in the OTT space with HDR. The SVOD distributor is in its second season offering its original Daredevil series in HDR and has added the new Marco Polo series to the HDR flow. By year’s end Netflix says it will have 600 hours of 4K content available to subscribers, with no signal yet as to how much of that will be HDR-enabled as well.

But Netflix vice president of user interface innovation Chris Jaffe, speaking at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, made clear HDR is a top priority. In remarks televised by CNBC Jaffe said HDR is something “we’re really excited about.” “It’s less about packing more pixels on the screen like the move from HD to ultra-HD 4K was,” he noted. “It’s about extending the total range of those pixels,” which means, “there’s a much more photo realistic image that you’re watching which is much more representative of the total range that your eye can see when you’re just looking around in real life.”

As for Sony, in early April the company launched Ultra to make 4K-formatted movies purchased at $30 each from the Sony Pictures Store available for streaming access on select 4K TVs running the Android TV OS. There’s no extra charge for HDR-enhanced movies. The service ties in with the UltraViolet electronic sell-through platform, allowing Ultra subscribers to link Ultra profiles to UltraViolet libraries and to upgrade already-owned HD versions of select Sony titles to 4K at a cost of $12 per title.

The service launched with just 50 4K-ready movies, an unspecified number of which are HDR-ready as well. In a recent interview posted by the Media & Entertainment Services Alliance Jake Winett, vice president of consumer services and advanced platforms for Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, said the company, along with adding new releases produced in 4K to the portfolio in the year ahead, will also be remastering already-released films in hopes of having a “decent amount of titles by the end of the year.”

Winett left open the possibility that Ultra may eventually make content from other sources available. He said the time has come to offer streamed access to cloud-stored content, given the rapid expansion of broadband access speeds. Notably, he said Sony was applying encoding techniques that will ensure that “with even a modest connection of say 20 Mbps, consumers are going to get a really great 4K streaming experience.”

But he acknowledged it was a challenge to get everything to work in a streaming environment. “[T]here are a lot of moving pieces to this, especially as we triangulate around [offering] something that looks really good, showcases 4K content — especially the HDR — in a streaming service, and the digital extras that [have been] reimagined for the 10-foot experience.”

Winett said these extra features will largely duplicate features built into the Blu-ray disc versions of the titles but with some differences. “I would say the one differentiator with digital is that we can be a little more dynamic with the content, with [the ability to add] additional content that becomes available to an extras package down the line, whereas with a disc it’s fixed,” he said.

“We also have a feature that will come with some movies, coming a little bit later after launch, which adds a fun layer of interactivity,” he noted. “While someone is watching the movie they can get an indication that there’s a [bonus] specific [to a] piece of content. That can be a bit of trivia, it can be a digital effects deconstruction scene, things like that. We think that will be interesting for consumers.”

4K Launches with Near-Term HDR Plans

Right behind the entities launching HDR in tandem with 4K content are several who are forging ahead with 4K now while preparing to introduce HDR asap. In August BT surprised observers by becoming the first European service provider to offer an all-4K sports channel and beating dominant U.K. MVPD Sky with an offering of any type of 4K content. At this point the BT Sport Ultra HD channel, which incurs a $7.10 monthly charge on top of the $14.20 basic premium package, features Barclays Premier League, for which the telco has exclusive rights, and other soccer events as well as rugby games and auto racing.

BT is delivering the UHD feed in multicast mode to neighborhood cabinets where it is converted for unicast delivery to individual households. The company, with just six percent of the pay TV market in the U.K., is hoping its big spend on the Premier League and aggressive rollout of 4K sports coverage will raise its profile against Sky and Virgin, the dominant cable provider.

BT officials have also made HDR a priority with technical trials underway to test solutions with partners that include Samsung and the BBC. They’ve indicated they intend to offer a two-layered approach with HDR, offering the SDR (standard dynamic range) version of the 4K signal to all subscribers and using the second layer to convey the HDR enhancement information to HDR-capable TV sets. They have not revealed the timing for introducing HDR other than to say it will happen between now and next year.

Another MVPD moving into live sports coverage as part of a 4K service strategy is Canadian MSO Videotron, starting with about a dozen basketball and hockey games scheduled February through April that were made available to sports network subscribers with a 4K set-top. This follows the MSO’s September rollout of an initial lineup of movies and TV programming for access on the new Samsung-made illico 4K Ultra HD PVR home media gateway, which, with a processor 12 times as powerful as the previous top-line STB processor, enables four times faster navigation, recording of eight programs simultaneously and capacity for storing 320 hours of HD or 115 hours of UHD content.

Videotron hasn’t committed to a timeframe for introducing HDR, but it appears the company is close to supporting the enhancement. In a recent press release from Alticast, announcing its role in providing middleware and UI support for the 4K set-top availability across the MSO’s entire footprint, the companies say the device positions Videotron to deliver UHD content “with the superior color, contrast and brightness” enabled by HDR.

Taking a more tepid approach to 4K, albeit one of the most aggressive in the U.S., AT&T’s DirecTV has created space for 4K broadcasts and other content delivered over a dedicated 4K channel. This is in addition to a line-up of VOD 4K that has been gradually expanding since last year for downloading to the 4K-capable Genie DVR and DirecTV-ready 4K TV sets from Samsung, LG and Sony. With launch of the 4K broadcast channel in early April as part of the DirecTV Ultimate and Premier packages, the satellite distributor said it will include occasional live coverage of events, starting with the Masters Golf Tournament April 7-10.

Dish, too, is now in the 4K game, having deployed the 4K-capable Joey set-top and Hopper 3 DVR in January in conjunction with availability of 4K VOD movies and other content under the Dish brand as well as 4K content from Netflix. More recently Dish has taken another tack with 4K set owners by offering a “Sports Bar” feature, released in time for the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament, that allows users to split the 4K screen four ways for HD-quality views of simultaneously occurring events.

A Fast-Evolving Comcast HDR Strategy

DirecTV and Dish have not signaled their plans for HDR, although Dish says its Hopper 3 supports HDR, which means the provider could begin offering HDR-enabled content at any time once it has determined there are enough Hopper 3s in the market to warrant the effort. But, Comcast, the other early MVPD provider of 4K content in the U.S., has made clear offering HDR-enhanced 4K content rather than just 4K is a top priority.

As previously reported, Comcast found 4K without HDR was not sufficiently compelling to merit a big push beyond offering 4K streaming apps for select models of Samsung 4K TV sets. Meanwhile, the MSO has sent confusing messages as to its 4K/HDR intentions with mention at different times of different Xfinity set-tops offering varying degrees of support for the two technologies, including the Xi4 box originally scheduled as a 4K offering for release in 2015; the Xi5, described as 4K capable with some support for HDR, due out this year in spring/summer timeframe, and the Xi6, with more expansive HDR capabilities, due out later in 2016.

While Comcast hasn’t issued any clarifying announcements after failing to launch the Xi4 in 2015, apparently that strategy has been scrapped in favor of moving to the 4K/HDR-capable models. In January, CableFax, quoting Comcast Cable’s Matt Strauss, executive vice president and general manager of video service, reported the company is “pivoting” away from launching a pure 4K box to one that supports HDR in time for the Rio Olympics this summer.

This apparently would be the Xi5 set-top insofar as Strauss indicated the Xi6 would not be ready for release until late 2016 or sometime in 2017. Comcast “concluded that deploying 4K boxes without HDR is not the experience we want to make available to our customers,” Strauss said. “That’s why we are pausing on 4K only trials and putting more resources behind 4K with HDR.

Anish Koirala
Anish Koirala
Meet Anish, a talented author in the gaming industry. With a passion for storytelling and a deep understanding of game mechanics, Anish weaves captivating narratives that immerse players in unforgettable worlds.
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