When will Sky go 4K?

The past few weeks have seen various rumours aired as to when Sky UK, and/or Sky Germany, launch 4K/Ultra-HD services. Earlier in February a report in London’s Sunday Telegraph talked about Sky bringing its launch of 4K transmissions forward to this Spring.  There was no denial by Sky, but certainly no endorsement either.

Indeed, at the recent SES-organised 4K event in London, Chris Johns, Sky UK’s chief engineer/broadcast strategy, told delegates that he was not ruling out an OTT-type delivery of 4K content. But he also stated that “We want to know what we can fit on a single [satellite] transponder, should it be necessary. We’re not ruling anything out; we’re looking at it economically. The lower the price for distributing a piece of content, the better it is, obviously,” said Johns.

By and large, however, Johns argued strongly that Sky – and true Ultra-HD – was not quite ready. It was expecting better standards to emerge and these would deliver the material difference in viewing experience that Sky wanted.

Stephan Heimbecher, Sky Germany’s head of innovation & standards, and very much the public face of Sky Germany’s 4K tests and trials, admitted at a Stockholm conference on February 5th that technically they were ready to start transmissions but only once management had made the ‘Go’ decision.

However, he also said that a year from now “I am confident that further testing and improvements will take place where we will make further reductions in the size of the signal, and perhaps two years from now match today’s HDTV signal size, but delivering superb quality.”

In other words it could well be that between now and a year from now Sky Germany’s 4K signals will be on air!

Sky never – repeat, never – pre-announces any of its major news until it is fully ready

From all this one might conclude that Sky is ready for 4K, but not just yet. But it is also worth remembering that Sky never – repeat, never – pre-announces any of its major news until it is fully ready. Nobody, but nobody, would dare give too many hints as to Sky’s plans, either in the UK or in Germany or Italy.

In fact it will be near-impossible to ‘predict’ when Sky might move. But there are some compelling reasons to think that a Ultra-HD launch could be sooner than later. First, and most compelling, is the cash that Netflix and Amazon are now taking out from the market with their limited 4K offerings. With 200,000 4K sets now in the hands of viewers in the UK and Germany, these are a primary audience for Netflix/Amazon.

Then there’s the competitive threat from rival BT Sport. It has also been widely reported that BT Sport will launch some sort of service “this spring”. BT’s CEO Gavin Patterson has said: “This year our Media and Broadcast business unit is trialing 4K resolution technology, which promises a new era.” Moreover BT has tested all-4K Outside Broadcast units (as has Sky) in readiness for Ultra-HD transmissions.

Neil Huggins, head of occasional use services, BT Media and Broadcast, speaking last September, said: “We were the first to provide an HD capability, and the first to do 3D.”

The above problems set out the challenges for the broadcasters. But consumer “pull” (and vendor “push”) is happening in the real-world environment of the marketplace. The ownership of 4K sets is growing impressively in the UK and Germany at about 60,000 a month, and a probable total for this year of anything between 500,000 and 1m units in both countries.

That’s a market.  Should Sky charge £5 or €5 a month in each market and attract just 50,000 subscribers, that’s an appealing sum of money. Rise that total to 200,000 and it’s a ton of cash. Take Sky’s UK and German most loyal supporters, soccer fans, and their predisposition to take Sky’s highest subscription tiers and you might have a very lucrative business.

A September subscription price rise announcement is almost a certainty and this could be coupled with an introduction of 4K

There’s another option for Sky: pubs and sports bars. Sky has in the past served projection units and large-screen TVs in bars in order to showcase its 3D services to popular acclaim and powerful word-of-mouth.  There’s no reason why the same strategy couldn’t be employed to showcase 4K/UHD.

Finally, the £4 billion question mark as to the 2016-2019 soccer English Premier League is now settled, and Sky will want to monetise those increased costs. A September subscription price rise is a certainty and this could be coupled with an introduction of Ultra-HD.

Will it happen? The answer is firmly at the desk of Sky CEO Jeremy Darroch and he is keeping silent. On February 4th, speaking after Sky’s results statement, Darroch poured extremely cold water on the idea, saying: “Ultra HD is [to be determined] – it does really well on big screens, but less impactful on smaller screens.  The jury is still out as to how big an idea it will be, we’re thinking about the box power, how we build into the software stack and the broadcast infrastructure that goes alongside that.”

Some might say that’s a definite “yes” and a strong suggestion, as always, that Sky will announce only when it is ready to announce, and probably a few days ahead of BT’s announcements…

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