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What does the future hold for UHD?

Emily Buchanan

Producer, BBC Academy/Fusion

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The awe-inspiring footage of Blue Planet II has once again shown the impact of ultra-high definition (UHD) TV. 

The BBC is experimenting with the new picture standard that captures content containing four times as many pixels as high definition. Its first experiments in UHD were with the Queen’s Christmas broadcast in 2014 and Planet Earth II in 2016.

But timing is crucial. If the BBC invests in UHD too early it will be accused of wasting licence payers’ money. After all, to enjoy all the benefits of UHD you need a 4K TV - and most people don’t have one of those.

On the other hand, if it invests too late, the BBC risks losing out to its rivals.

Andrew Cotton, principal technologist, of BBC R&D is in no doubt there is a big future for the new format. He says UHD, when combined with the higher dynamic range that increases contrast, is “the biggest change to TV since we moved to colour”.

The Natural History Unit was an early adopter of the technology, as even without 4K TV sets, there are so many advantages to filming in 4K to give a higher quality product to everyone regardless of the set they have.

All of Planet Earth II was made in UHD and in the iPlayer trials enabled by collaborating with BBC R&D, viewers gave it top ratings.

Within the BBC, the main funder for UHD is Worldwide, and Worldwide will continue to drive the investment.

Outside the BBC, Netflix and Amazon have a Hollywood mind-set and are investing in high quality drama and documentaries in UHD. In fact they and their audiences increasingly expect TV drama to look cinematic in quality.

A sporting chance

Many broadcasters, especially Sky, see UHD sports coverage as a big selling point, offering unbeatable detail that subscribers will be willing to pay extra for. The extra resolution means the action, the ball and players’ emotions will be more visible from a distance.

Even if the delivery of certain sports was to remain HD, then still capturing in UHD has the cropping and reframing benefits already enjoyed by the Natural History Unit. UHD capture may also allow for covering more Sports events and requiring less crew. Chris Tarren, change analyst at Worldwide, says UHD transforms the filming of a game like tennis:

“At Wimbledon, outlying courts could have a single UHD camera covering an entire court in order to get the final HD picture in which the ball is clearly visible.”

4K is not 3D

Many point to the high hopes for 3D and worry that the public just won’t buy into 4K. But 3D was hampered by the need to wear cumbersome 3D glasses. The 4K experience requires just a 4K TV and fast broadband.

The BBC has started UHD trials, experimenting first with iPlayer streaming pictures over the internet. It will be a long time though before the BBC will be broadcasting all output in UHD, and possibly never.

Andrew Dunne, the post production technology manager for Worldwide, says the future of UHD is less about broadcast and more about an iPlayer delivered service.

“There will always be a market for event TV, but most UHD content will be on-demand and streamed.”

Change will be slow. Even now with High Definition, while BBC1 is broadcast in HD, the ‘Nations and Regions’ opt-outs are still in Standard Definition.

Chris Tarren says: “UHD will be more viable for more programmes when end-to-end can handle it. But it will come at a cost, and possibly not for another three to five years.”

He argues that what is likely to really help drive UHD forward is a much more software-defined world.

“So just like upgrading an iPhone, it will eventually be the same with post-production and broadcast kit. People will be able to adopt incremental updates in a cost-effective way.”


Related links: 

UHD production: What do I need to know?

BBC Academy collection on UHD production

4K and Ultra-HD: Making programmes


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