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Who will join the 4K rush?

The waiting is Déjà Vu all over again.

We now know that satellite operator SES has reserved five channels for 4K/UHD launches. We know that Sky Deutschland has reserved 4K capacity. We know that SES has signed up a German shopping channel (pearl.tv) for transmission in 4K.

We know that a major new general entertainment channel will launch at MIPCOM in October complete with a diverse and exciting range of 4K programming with some serious cash behind what they claim is a new concept in terms of a channel. We understand it will be carried on three important satellite platforms, including SES.

And we know that Canal Plus is testing 4K. This suggests that SES’s initial  five channels are now more or less identified.

This is all good news. But what else can viewers expect to watch on their glorious new 4K-UHD displays?  To help compile this list we went back to those similarly crazy days (and months) of speculation in pre-HDTV, of 2002 when some people were describing high-definition TV as “the big yawn” with – it was claimed – nobody really interested in making programming in this – then – new format.

But even then the public were enthusiastic. By November 2003, the prices for 27” flat-panel HDTV (27”, does anyone still view TV on a 27” screen??) sets had “tumbled” to “just” $900. Sets with 36” screens were available for “only” $1900. Oh, and in October 2003 a new all-satellite, all-HDTV service had started from Rainbow Media over the US, called ‘Voom’. Voom sadly went bust a year or so later, but as for everything else, doesn’t today’s anxieties over Ultra-HD sound a little like what Yogi Berra might say as “It’s Déjà Vu all over again”. [NY Yankees ‘catcher’ Berra, famous for his malapropisms, is now aged 90, and alive and well]

Also in 2003, we talked about consumers buying high-end Plasma displays (at up to $6,000 each), and predicting that 2004 could see sales in Europe topping 400,000 such units. Again, this compares with the current situation where UHD display sales this year in Europe’s three major markets (Germany, France and the UK) will likely top 800,000 units, and perhaps as many as 1 million in each.

In 2003 we were writing about the then Tandberg Television (now part of Ericsson) and its then COO Eric Cooney. Do his comments sound familiar?  “There have been plenty of people talking and even some action with the EBU high definition tests in a trial that we supported, and there have been other people looking at high definition TV, not necessarily for home use but in pubs and clubs and the like. They are asking us whether the images that are delivered to giant screens in pubs could be improved with HDTV’s help, but it does require significant technology investment in the projectors for example. For home use, and asking the question whether Europe will transition from conventional digital to high definition, I see these decisions being made over this next year or two as countries look at terrestrial delivery as well as cable and satellite and study the opportunities.”

Cooney explained that Tandberg could – in 2003 – comfortably handle MPEG2 HDTV at 10-12 Mb/s, compared with the expected 20-40 Mb ranges just a few years ago, and there are other improvements in the offing. “In practical terms what we are saying is that a satellite transponder can now comfortably carry three HD signals. A viewer with a suitable set or set-top box would immediately notice a significant improvement in picture quality.” Given that only a few years ago broadcasters were paying small fortunes for analogue transponder capacity (and still do for Germany coverage), then carrying three or four HD channels on one 36 MHz transponder is not so expensive, always provided there was an audience out there.

Back in the here and now, we know that there’s an audience for Ultra-HD. The viewing public are buying high-end sets at an impressive rate, despite some anxieties that these early models will not deliver ‘true’ 4K. Certainly only a few models will be upgradable to handle High Dynamic Range, let alone 100/120 fps and the much-praised Wider Colour Gamut that we will learn more about at IBC next month.

But there are the first shoots of broadcasting optimism now emerging, besides the five channels anticipated from SES. First up, by the end of this year, consumers can start watching 4K Blu-ray material on newly available Blu-ray players.

It is also widely announced that Netflix will widen its 4K offerings (including the new series of Marco Polo), and Amazon Prime is investing millions in new streamed programming, much of which is in 4K. Viewers can only hope that the much-trailed decision from Amazon to back a new very high profile Top Gear-type motoring show will be made in 4K.  Past productions of the Clarkson, Hammond, May madcap car show on the BBC have been entirely cinematic in terms of image capture, and the team will certainly not go back in terms of production values.

Meanwhile, both Netflix and Amazon supply plenty of movies re-mastered in 4K, while in the UK, BT TV is already ramping up its 4K output (mostly sport).

Back in 2003, we were examining in detail what each of the major channels and broadcasting groups would likely be doing in terms of 4K programme plans. We know that Discovery is, just at it did in the early 2000s, happy to back 4K. Having burnt its fingers in the ‘rush to 3D’ (in the j-v with Sony and IMAX in 3NET) it is cautious, but was a very early adopter of its Discovery HD Theatre which went ‘live’ on June 17 2003 (exactly 18 years to the day when the Discovery Channel launched). By December that year, there were 10 HD channels on air in the US including ESPN and movie channels.

Europe in 2003 had just one: Euro1080, a pioneering HD channel that grew out of production house Alfacam (which subsequently went bust).

As 2016 unfolds, it is now clear that 4K/UHD will firmly arrive. Initially with a mix of Sport and Movies. Given that channels such as Sky Atlantic are already showcasing programming shot in 4K it is likely that it will be the backbone of an early Sky 4K service beyond sports and movies.

Comparing and contrasting today’s UHD situation with that of HDTV a dozen or more years ago shows some remarkable similarities. But attempting to second-guess where Europe might be at the end of 2016 is difficult in the extreme.

A channel snap-shot
BBC: Testing, testing, testing
Discovery: Enthusiastic
Disney: No apparent plans
Eurosport:  Enthusiastic
Nat-Geo: Enthusiastic
Animal Planet: Eventually
Sky: Germany soon, others will follow
SIS: Absolutely no plans
NBCUniversal:  No plans
MTV: No hurry
Nickelodeon: Absolutely no hurry
Turner: Not for a while
Cartoon Network: No plans at all
CNN: Not for a long while
Canal Plus: Testing now
France Télévisions: Testing/Enthusiastic
ITV (UK): Waiting for mass-market
NHK World: Very enthusiastic

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