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Promising Signs for Broadcast UHD TV at the NAB Show

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ATSC-30-225x140.jpgDespite the relatively strong start that Ultra HD (UHD) TVs have had in the United States, one sticking point that's still standing in the way of mass adoption remains the lack of native 4K content, especially on the broadcasting front. At the recent National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show in Las Vegas, however, there was ample evidence that a significant part of the broadcasting industry is enthusiastic about UHD and intends to support it--with the exception of cable TV operators, who have largely remained mum about their plans.

A case can be made that 4K was a larger focus at the NAB Show than it was at CES in January, where--as we reported--4K TVs had to compete for attention with Internet of Things and smart home devices, autonomous/driverless cars, and several other emerging technology categories. Since CES, the FCC approved a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking allowing broadcasters to voluntarily start rolling out ATSC 3.0, the next-generation broadcast transmission standard that provides a wide range of benefits and opportunities for broadcasters because it provides over-the-air delivery of everything from immersive audio to 4K video to targeted advertising. The FCC's move clearly added to UHD's momentum ahead of the NAB Show, where 4K and ATSC 3.0 both had a strong presence--from conference sessions to the new products and services touted at exhibitors' booths.

There was also a NextGen TV Hub in the Grand Lobby of the Las Vegas Convention Center at the show, where ATSC 3.0's capabilities were featured front and center. The demo featured a live ATSC 3.0 broadcast originating from local Las Vegas TV station KLSV-LD, in which a variety of 4K programming was spotlighted. The broadcast was received at the Hub on an LG 4K TV with an integrated ATSC 3.0 tuner. ATSC 3.0 TV features demonstrated at the Hub included addressable advertising, audience measurement, and advanced emergency alerting.

Various new devices will ship soon with built-in ATSC 3.0 capability, with the first embedded ATSC 3.0 functionality coming this year in flat-screen TV receivers designed for use during next year's Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, the Advanced Television Systems Committee pointed out.

Despite the impending finalization of the ATSC 3.0 standard, however, challenges for broadcast 4K still remain.

The Content Lag
"UHD TVs have been out there for a while, but obviously there's been a little bit of a lag, I would say, in terms of content availability," said Hanno Basse, chief technology officer at 20th Century Fox Film Corporation and president/chairman of the UHD Alliance, during the NAB conference session "Ultra HD Broadcasting Comes of Age." But he added, "We've been working very hard to close that gap." 

The vast majority of the 4K content so far has been focused on movies, via the UHD Blu-ray format. UHD software sales crossed the three-million-unit mark the weekend ahead of NAB, Basse said. "We're really happy with where that's going ... even though a lot of people thought that physical media is dead," the format has grown faster than the original Blu-ray format did when it launched in 2005. As of NAB week, there were about 139 titles in UHD Blu-ray available across Hollywood, including 27 from Fox, and that number was growing on a weekly basis.

Although High Dynamic Range (HDR) content creation and distribution have been easy for the movie industry to incorporate into the UHD disc and streaming formats, the picture is quite the opposite for broadcast content, he said, noting that it's "very hard to create" broadcast HDR content because "you need new cameras" and switchers, and "all the graphics need to be updated to" HDR. "That creates a huge investment burden, and at the same time how do you actually monetize that? It's very difficult."

Add to those challenges the need for backwards compatibility, he explained. "It's much harder to set up an HDR production side by side with [a Standard Dynamic Range] production and have an HDR channel side by side with an SDR channel. So, that's again driving the costs there quite a bit" when it comes to broadcasting.

There is also "still not a whole lot of consensus around what exactly the HDR format for broadcast" will be, he pointed out. Using more than one HDR format "creates issues" because, if one element of a program was created using one HDR format and another element was created using a different HDR format, a series of questions must be answered. "Can you put both of those on the same linear channel? Can you switch between the two? Can the TV understand within a frame-switching period what it needs to do?" That's why the movie industry has been "leading the pack" here when it comes to 4K, he said.

Other broadcast 4K "constraints in the real world" include the need for a tremendous amount of bandwidth. But broadcasting companies made it quite clear during the NAB Show that many of them are looking to overcome all the challenges posed by broadcast 4K; and, in some cases, they've already been conducting tests.

Peter Sockett, director of engineering and operations at the Capitol Broadcasting Company in North Carolina, pointed out during the same NAB conference session that his company has already tested broadcasting 4K and has even shot its own programs in 4K. Especially appealing components of UHD include HDR, wide color gamut (WCG) and high frame rate (HFR), he said.

Like Basse, Sockett pointed to sports as broadcast content that looks especially good in 4K, especially when factoring in HDR and HFR. For example, when combined with HFR, in particular, 4K lets viewers see the laces on the football as the ball crosses into the end zone, Sockett said. Explaining why UHD is taking off now and why it's so appealing for broadcasters, Sockett summed it up this way: "It's the best quality there is ... We're making content. We want people to watch it, so we're going to do it the best way we can, and it just looks great."

Not Just Video
The enhancements provided by ATSC 3.0 don't only include video. The standard also includes two audio formats: Dolby AC-4 and MPEG-H Audio. Dolby demonstrated AC-4 at the NAB Show, while Fraunhofer demonstrated MPEG-H at its booth, and both new audio formats were also demonstrated at the NextGen TV Hub.

Following the NAB Show, Dolby CEO and President Kevin Yeaman said on his company's second-quarter earnings call that AC-4 was "gaining early traction." He said AC-4 was "twice as efficient as Dolby Digital Plus and offers compelling new features." Although "implementation takes time, key partners like Samsung, LG, Sony, and VIZIO have already announced the adoption" of AC-4 in their TVs, he said.

The Months (and Years) Ahead
ATSC 3.0 is expected to be finalized very soon ("just weeks away," ATSC said on May 4). Still, several things remain to be seen, including just when broadcasters and content makers will take advantage of all the features that the new standard offers.

HFR is "probably going to be a very important factor going forward," explained Madeleine Noland, a consultant on the Standard Technology and Development Team at LG's Convergence R&D Lab who has participated in ATSC 3.0 development. But exactly when mass adoption will take place for HFR capture and distribution is "still TBD." She added, "That depends a lot on the content guys, [and] I think it takes time for the content producers to really get their creative arms around the new tools."

As for 8K and beyond, she said, "All eyes are on Japan." While there have been 8K demonstrations at the NAB Show and CES, we shouldn't necessarily expect adoption to happen anytime soon. Noland told NAB Show attendees, "I would say that, in the marketplace, realistically you would be looking at large commercial displays, at least at first. I think that 8K in the home is a little ways off, and I don't know how far away 8K is from the production side and the delivery side." The significance of 8K can also be debated. For one thing, Sockett said, the human eye can't really see the difference between 4K and 8K on the typical display.

Also not clear is exactly when cable TV operators, in particular, will take advantage of 4K and ATSC 3.0. And, further down the road, it's not clear precisely when broadcasters and TV makers will shift from 4K to 8K.

The slow adoption of broadcast 4K TV in the U.S. was addressed in Huawei's UHD adoption conference session at the NAB Show. At the end of the first quarter of this year, there were about 100 linear UHD services globally, said moderator Michelle Abraham, senior research analyst at SNL Kagan/S&P Global Intelligence. "We do expect to see a steady climb in each region," with "more channels added each year as more and more content becomes available to fill up a linear channel," she said, noting that Asia and Europe have been in the lead when it comes to the number of UHD linear services.

"We do expect to see more in North America as we move forward," she added. Regions with "a lot of competition amongst the pay TV providers are more likely to have adopted" Ultra HD services than those without major competition. The providers most likely to transition more quickly to 4K also include traditional TV services that are "feeling the heat from" over-the-top (OTT) service providers that are, "in some cases, moving very quickly themselves to offer Ultra HD content," she said.

In the same Huawei session, Basse questioned just how much linear TV will drive UHD adoption when you look at TV viewing trends today. Indeed, there's been a growing shift to non-linear TV viewing as more consumers time-shift programs and watch them either via DVR or on-demand--and often on mobile devices. Nevertheless, it remains hard to find even on-demand 4K content through most North American pay TV services.

Live sports, meanwhile, continues to be one main reason why many Americans haven't cut the cord on their pay TV service. Despite Basse's call for more 4K sports, he pointed out that monetization for linear broadcast content, especially sports, is just not as simple as it is for movies because of all the new devices that broadcasters must invest in to broadcast in UHD. "We need to figure out how to get the production costs down," he said. Regarding the lack of adequate bandwidth, an often-cited barrier to more broadcast 4K, he commented, "Fiber technology is improving very quickly, so over time I think the bandwidth to the home issue is being resolved. But the production issue is not."

Despite the lingering challenges facing mass UHD adoption, I walked away from the NAB Show more optimistic about 4K TV growth this year than I was after CES--since I had a fuller picture of the entire UHD TV ecosystem. What would have to happen for me to become even more optimistic? For starters, more enthusiasm about UHD from U.S. cable TV operators and more UHD enthusiasm from Disney on two fronts: the movie studio finally releasing its first titles on UHD Blu-ray and its ESPN division investing more in 4K sports. Star Wars, Marvel, and Disney animated movie hits in UHD Blu-ray should go a long way toward giving that nascent optical disc format and 4K overall a lift. And regular 4K sports broadcasts outside of just the occasional golf tournament or Olympics coverage should go a long way toward convincing more sports networks and TV operators to throw their support behind 4K more quickly. That should, in turn, encourage more U.S. consumers to go out and buy a 4K TV, rather than just sitting around and waiting for their current TV to stop working.

Additional Resources
Major Sports Will Prove to Be the Tipping Point in 4K's Rise to Prominence at HomeTheaterReview.com.
I Want My UHD Blu-ray Rentals at HomeTheaterReview.com.
Your Guide to Ultra HD Streaming at HomeTheaterReview.com.

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