CES 2014 and the steady march of 4K TV

4K coming more quickly through broadband services

Although we have seen early channels appear on satellite and at least discussed for terrestrial home distribution platforms, it seems to be online video service providers who are currently the most engaged in developing 4K services.

It might at first seem that limitations of broadband access networks would be a daunting challenge, but Netflix and Amazon have been working behind the scenes to put the pieces of the jigsaw into place – drawing on adaptive coding and increasingly effective content distribution networks – together with a ramp up in access speeds available to consumers in developed markets.

The arrival of the $999 4K TV is milestone in the introduction of the technology into mainstream home entertainment – not one that major TV producers will probably be too delighted about, given how margins are being squeezed in general.

Behind the scenes is perhaps the real innovation – the High Efficiency Video Codec (HEVC) that will enable the 4K signals to be accommodated affordably on broadband and broadcast networks. Certainly Envivio(1) sees growth in HEVC products starting around 2015 as distribution networks seek to squeeze down costs – depending on the availability of support in end user devices. It estimates that HEVC could yield a 30% data rate saving on the H.264 codec (also known as MPEG4 Part 10 or Advanced Video Codec (AVC)).

It is ironic that OTT providers are leading broadcast distribution in terms of quality, but we have already seen this in the audio sphere. As an example, BBC Radio 3’s online service has a higher bit-rate (300 kbps) than is available via digital broadcast platforms (192 kbps or lower) – and more efficient encoding can be used (which the BBC refers to as HD Radio).

In TV, broadcasters complain about the costs of upgrading their production chain and increased commissioning costs for externally produced works. This seems to be less of a concern for the online service providers whose genre focus on the premium end of TV content (movies and high profile TV dramas) where the additional production cost can be justified – in terms of viewer enjoyment and likely revenues over many years.

  1. Satellite Today, Jan 10th 2014 article

Should BBC licence fee support 4K production?

Traditionally the BBC has lead the way in probing the boundaries of new technology in UK broadcasting. Examples include: Teletext (Ceefax), It has shown what the new technology is capable of and produced compelling demonstrations which then encouraged consumers to go forth and purchase new devices to enjoy the benefits in their home.

And yet the the BBC’s head of technology for HD and Ultra-HD (Andy Quested) has said that the BBC cannot use the licence fee to subsidise the higher costs of producing content for new 4K services. As the BBC pushes towards the more personal service model its new Director General has described, there are presumably plenty of other calls on the licence fee cash.

But should the BBC not produce its flagship programmes in the best format available - with a view to enhancing the value of its archive? The key criterion seems to be the number of viewers who can benefit at the current time. Certainly the penetration of 4K/UDTV television receivers is very low and it is not clear how quickly the prices of the new sets might fall - to enable acceleration of take-up. However even consumers who can afford the sets are only likely to want to purchase them if the content choice is attractive enough. For the present the BBC will make content for these 'super' formats, but will using funding other than the licence fee.

More details in this AdvancedTelevision.com article.