4K Gathers More Momentum

Deployments still limited, but early data indicates consumers with 4KTVs have appetite for new format

LAS VEGAS — Adoption of 4K and Ultra HD video may be in its nascent stages, but new viewing data shows that consumers with TVs that support those formats are clamoring for the pixel-packed content.

Customers of Layer3 TV, the new Internet protocol-delivered pay TV offering, are gravitating to 4K content in big numbers, company cofounder and chief technology officer David Fellows said in presenting a case study at the NAB Show.

Fellows said NASA TV UHD is currently in the “mid-20s” among the most popular linear channels offered by Layer3 TV. Its second-most popular video-on-demand asset, he said, is the 4K version of Planet Earth II from BBC America, behind only NBC’s This Is Us.

“We are finding demand from customers that the marketplace had better react to,” Fellows said, noting that all of Layer3 TV’s devices are capable of supporting 4K video.

Layer3 TV hasn’t disclosed subscriber numbers, but the service is available in a handful of markets, including metropolitan Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, as well as in Longmont, Colo., where Layer3 TV is working with a municipal broadband provider called NextLight.

Layer3 TV is among a small group of U.S. pay TV distributors that have rolled out 4K video. Others include Dish Network, DirecTV as well as two small cable operators — Wisconsin’s Marquette-Adams and North Carolina’s Highlands Cable Group — which recently launched a lineup of 10 channels in the format via a partnership with SES S.A. and Vivicast Media.

In a briefing at NAB, SES vice president of business development Steve Corda said he is seeing increased interest in 4K content, but acknowledged that access to set-tops that support it is limited.

Arris, the world’s largest set-top supplier, will be offering help in this area. The company confirmed that it has begun to ship the DCX900, a hybrid IP/QAM device that supports 4K and uses the TiVo interface.

GROWING DEMAND

Others were touting the virtues of UHD at last week’s show. “The demand is there [for UHD] and the industry is excited to fulfill it,” Madeleine Noland, consultant with LG Electronics and an executive representing the Ultra HD Forum, said last week at a panel titled, “Ultra HD Broadcasting Comes of Age.”

“UHD is going to take off,” she added. “The signs are all there.”

Among those signs are the raw numbers and adoption forecasts. The Consumer Technology Association last November announced that the adoption rate for Ultra HD-capable TVs has already surpassed that of HDTV sets. The CTA expects 15 million UHD sets to be sold in the U.S. by the end of 2017, with that figure ballooning to 24.5 million by the end of 2020.

Other organizations, media firms and broadcasters are already putting their weight behind Ultra HD, and the various next-generation video and audio aspects that will underpin it, including 4K resolution, wide-color gamut and high dynamic range.

But UHD devices, its distribution ecosystem and its content must all work hand in hand.

UHD TV adoption is growing, but there’s a “little bit of a lag” when it comes to the amount of available content, admitted Hanno Basse, chief technology officer of 20th Century Fox and president and chairman of the UHD Alliance.

“But we’re working hard to close that gap,” Basse said. Fox, he said, is trying to bridge the chasm by making available pixel-packed movies and other titles for UHD Blu-ray players.

He pointed to recent data from The NPD Group showing that there were almost 140 titles available in the format, including 27 from Fox, such as Deadpool, Trolls and Independence Day: Resurgence.

Basse also pointed out that creating and distributing UHD titles is easier for movie studios than it is for broadcasters. For movie studios, he said, it’s fairly straightforward because the content is already being captured that way, and the visual effects are already being produced in HDR. There’s also limited backwards compatibility issues for physical and video-on-demand content created in the format, Basse said.

By comparison, broadcasters require new cameras, switchers and updated graphics, which require a multimillion-dollar investment to get the full chain of technologies linked together.

“That creates a huge investment burden,” he said, adding that consensus for HDR formats for broadcasters is still lacking. “That’s why the movie industry is leading the pack here.”

TAKING THE PLUNGE

But that hasn’t stopped some broadcasters from pushing ahead and experimenting. Capitol Broadcasting, for example, has been dabbling in UHD for about three years, Pete Sockett, the company’s director of engineering and operations, explained during the session, which was moderated by NewBay Media contributor Gary Arlen.

Capitol Broadcasting, which owns three stations and an over-the-top channel, obtained an experimental license for UHD and ATSC 3.0 in 2016, and has been involved in several 4K projects that include the creation of documentaries shot in the format, and support for NBC’s 4K feeds from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Capitol’s WRAL has also shot 14 episodes of Out & About, a 30-minute show featuring local businesses and locations in the market. Sockett said WRAL plans to feature some of its video handiwork via a UHD section for its OTT channel for devices such as Roku players and Amazon Fire TV boxes, and will be exploring how the format might fit into its newsgathering operations. That OTT-focused UHD offering will launch later this year.

Noland also discussed the complementary aspects of UHD and ATSC 3.0, the next-generation broadcast standard.

ATSC 3.0, she noted, will cover UHD resolutions, higher-frame rates and HDR. On the audio side, it will support two new, immersive audio formats: Dolby AC-4 and MPEG-H.

The core elements of ATSC 3.0 were approved in 2016, and final approval is expected in the second quarter of 2017, she said.