Many who are still going through the metamorphosis from analog to digital HDTV, which began more than 15 years ago, will find it hard not to notice a strikingly similar sea change about to en- velop the TV industry once again: 4K UHDTV.
Unlike the vexing chicken-or-egg question, slowing the last transition when it came to avail- able HD content vs. available HD eyeballs, UH- DTV’s promise of delivering images about four times the resolution of today’s high-definition already appears to be prompting an accelerating list of TV and cinema 4K content, if nothing else but as a means of future-proofing for now. The high price points of the newly available 4K sets are expected to decline in the next few years (a 70-inch 4K Vizio TV recently sold at Costco for under $2,000) as sales volume presumably grows.
Joining other must-see attractions —notably, IP advances, cloud storage, new camera technology and drones — 4K seems to be on the “wish list” of many heading to the show, not that it doesn’t come with some hurdles.
“There’s a looming technical shortfall in production plants and we can illustrate it with a simple example,” says Larry Thaler, president of Positive Flux, a consultancy.
“Right now it’s virtually impossible to buy a camcorder that does lower resolution than 1080p, yet the best plants, except for ESPN, are capable of only 1080i. There’s that gap,” said Thaler, a former network broadcast engineer.
“The… long, slow process of adoption that took place with HDTV — which, by the way, is still going on — won’t work. Facilities need to be much more agile in moving up to UHD and higher-format paths,” Thaler said.
Global Broadcast Lead Gavin Mann at Accen- ture said there’s no doubt 4K has a very significant role to play in the near future. “It’s a question of ‘when’ and not ‘if,’” he said. Mann believes innovative initiatives outside of broadcasting — yet which include significant broadcast content, such as Apple TV’s recently disclosed plan to begin bundling a few dozen broadcast and cable networks for consumers next fall — provide tremendous opportunities for broadcasters.
“It’s because the traditional broadcast business model isn’t disappearing overnight, thanks to the popularity of broadcast programs. Plus, Apple does not appear interested in creating its own content, per se. So broadcasters have the benefit of time to experiment a bit and get it right. That doesn’t mean they should stand still, and none of them are, as far as I can see.”
Mann also thinks a lot of TV broadcasters are searching for any significant strides being made by major players in moving towards an all-IP val- ue chain for the industry.
“There are a lot of steps yet to be taken here, of course, but I do see some [movement]. Yet, it might be more of a pipe dream right now,” Mann said. Thaler said just as audio networking helped reduce the cost of production audio, he envisions moving towards “islands” of video-over-IP technologies within the plant.
“We applaud those working to squeeze UH-DTV into a single coaxial cable. Some may build their architectures using this solution. However, there’s a high likelihood by the time these new standards are adopted, the IT industry will have significantly passed them by in terms of bandwidth. Recent efforts at adopting VoIP technologies [i.e., SMPTE 2022 and 2059] are keys to our future success,” Thaler said.
Leonard Venezia, vice president of Field Operations & Engineering at NBC Universal, said his shop has been using IP transmission technologies for quite a while.
“It’s at the core of what we did for news at the Olympics since Vancouver,” he said. As for 4K, “It’s interesting to see how television sports uses 4K to help lower the cost of production by using technologies like the Evertz DreamCatcher. I think affordable transmission technologies for 4K are still an arm’s length away, and we’re looking for further development on that front.”
According to Alan Popkin, director of engineering at pubcaster KLCS-TV in Los Angeles, “An IP-based infrastructure is just on the near horizon in practical terms. I would love to move from an SDI base-band approach, if it’s feasible. I’m interested in software-defined networks. … I’m curious to see if there are real products and applications available.”
Venezia, for his part, seems most interested in an emerging field, drones. “Drone and aerial robotic technology is all-the-buzz right now and we have a keen interest. There’s a whole pavilion dedicated to this technology and we plan to look at it carefully,” he said. “There’s also been an explosion in camera technology over the last couple of years with the advent of oversized imagers. We see new entries in the market from Panasonic, Arri, Sony, Blackmagic and many more. Certainly they offer some great new tools for producers and story tellers,” Venezia said.
Cloud technologies are rapidly becoming an integral part of NBCU’s digital workflow, Venezia added. “Among many things, we use it to deliver content back and forth from the field, transcode applications, speech-to-text conversion, embedding metadata and device control.”
Accenture’s Mann agrees on the cloud’s emergence as a major industry tool. “Local broadcasters should be considering cloud storage as part of their overall plans, if they aren’t already,” he said. “Certainly the ability to provide elements of your business storage requirements by leveraging the cloud is increasingly compelling because of the incredible pace of change we see… especially as price points continue to tumble.”
Popkin thinks cloud storage is interesting, “But only if I can establish a robust workflow in the cloud that’s competitive with a local system. Long on promise, short on feature sets, and it tends to move costs from CapEx to OpEx without significant savings and ease-of-use.”