Jeff Berman is one of a rare breed of AV industry writers who focuses on the business side of the market. In addition to a rich history of working in retail, he has written for M&E Daily, Smart Content News, Smart Screen News, and CDSA Cyber Security News, and also worked for six years as a contributing editor for the Consumer Technology Association's annual Digital America publication.
If you own an Ultra HD (UHD) TV, the chances are you continue to be annoyed by the underwhelming volume of broadcast 4K content you can watch on it, regardless of what TV service provider you have. That's especially the case if you subscribe to any cable TV service. The vast majority of U.S. TV service providers and TV network executives haven't exactly been in any meaningful rush to shift from HD to UHD or 4K. Sadly, that's not expected to significantly change anytime soon based on comments in recent months by various experts on the subject, including analysts, consumer electronics manufacturers, and TV network executives despite the post CES manufacturer buzz being all about the pending reality of 8K video monitors.
You can, of course, opt to upscale HD broadcast content to UHD on most 4K TVs. But scaling from 1080i or 720p, which is what most networks broadcast in, to 4K on many of today's lower-priced yet very bright new 4K TVs results in an image that is nearly unwatchable. Better scaling in players, preamps, or receivers is a much better alternative if you want to cough up the extra bucks for that.
Not surprisingly, most of the small amount of satellite content that's been broadcast in 4K so far has been sports. The best UHD option among TV service providers so far has been DirecTV. The now AT&T-owned satellite service offers more 4K than its rivals, including three channels dedicated to 4K content and some 4K pay-per-view also.
Dish, meanwhile, despite the "limited availability of 4K programming," has been "making every effort to deliver" UHD content when possible, according to company spokeswoman Emma Brandeis. It's been delivering 4K broadcasts on its designated 4K channel (540) "throughout the past couple years, like live college football, college basketball and MLB games" from Fox Sports, and 4K HDR broadcasts including the 2018 World Cup and NBCUniversal's coverage of the 2018 Winter Olympics from PyeongChang, South Korea, she said. Dish satellite customers also can access on-demand 4K content from Epix, Smithsonian Channel, and TV Land, she noted, adding BBC America's newest nature documentary, Dynasties, is available in 4K on demand through March 25 and 4K titles on the Sony Movie Channel will be available starting in March.
Verizon announced late last year that it started rolling out Fios TV One set-top boxes that offer "4K capability" and "full 4K UHD video quality" to subscribers of its fiber-optic service. The company currently offers only 4K video on demand, but expects to "expand our portfolio in the future," a Verizon spokesman said Feb. 28.
As has widely been reported, cable TV service providers have generally offered the least amount of broadcast 4K content. For example, Spectrum is "not offering any 4K content at this time," company spokeswoman Maureen Huff told me Feb. 27. Altice, meanwhile, didn't respond to a request for comment.
Comcast, however, provided access to NBC's on-demand 4K coverage of the Rio and PyeongChang Olympics, as well as Telemundo's on-demand 4K coverage of the World Cup, a company spokeswoman pointed out. Via voice search using its Xfinity X1 TV set-top boxes, meanwhile, subscribers have been able to access 4K programming from streaming services including Amazon Prime, Netflix, and YouTube, she said.
Among the major networks, NBC Sports offered 4K coverage of the 2016 Summer Olympics from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and 2018 Winter Olympics that also featured High Dynamic Range (HDR). It also offered 4K HDR coverage of Notre Dame college football home games during the 2018 season, Mark Lazarus, chairman of the NBC Broadcasting & Sports division of Comcast, told me at the Sports Video Group (SVG) Summit in New York City in December. But NBC wasn't exactly rushing to broadcast a larger percentage of broadcasts in 4K due to a variety of factors, including the UHD adoption rate at the multichannel video programming distribution and consumer levels, as well as the ongoing shift among broadcasters to the new, ATSC 3.0 next-generation TV broadcast standard, he said.
NBA basketball, meanwhile, has a partnership with DirecTV for a limited number of games in 4K with HDR, while The Masters (golf major) has been a leader in 4K, and a limited amount of NHL hockey has been broadcast in 4K. But other sports, including NFL football, have still largely been missing in action when it comes to 4K broadcasts.
CBS Sports reportedly used UHD cameras for this year's Super Bowl, but only broadcast the game down-scaled to HD resolutions. CBS, which is also the parent company of Showtime, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment about its 4K initiatives. Disney-owned ESPN, meanwhile, has 4K cameras and other UHD capabilities, but hasn't broadcast any sports events in UHD yet. ABC, also owned by Disney, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Nor did HBO, which is now owned by AT&T. But AT&T, Disney, and Fox executives rarely ever even discuss UHD on their companies' earnings calls, focusing far more often on their mobile streaming initiatives.
Vincent Roberts, a now-retired executive vice president of global operations and chief technology officer at the Disney ABC Television Group, pointed out at a conference back in 2014 that his company had only recently converted some of its channels to HD and predicted the UHD rollout would take a while. TV service operators that had "adequate bandwidth will offer the first iteration" of 4K, but for ABC to "even contemplate a whole channel in 4K" was difficult at that time because there were simply "not enough eyeballs out there"--in other words, not enough subscribers--"to make a business case," a published report quoted him saying. If a TV service operator offered Disney a decent per-month subscription "then it might be a different argument," he said, adding: "We don't feel that we as broadcasters should be subsidizing" the consumer electronics industry so that it could sell more TVs. Unfortunately, not a whole lot has changed for TV networks when it comes to 4K broadcasts.
Click over to page 2 for details on bandwidth issues, the wait for ATSC 3.0, and other existing barriers to broadcast 4K...
The Remaining Sticking Points for Broadcast 4K Today
The continued "lack of UHD broadcast content in the U.S. is a mystery to me," Chris Chinnock, owner of display market research company Insight Media and executive director of the new 8K Association, said Feb. 26. But he assumed it's because broadcast networks and others in charge still "see a negative cost-benefit" situation to shifting over to UHD at this point. He added: "I keep hearing talk like 1080p HDR has more value than 4K or 4K HDR in terms of cost-benefit, yet that has not even been rolled out" either.
But, based on what NBC's Lazarus and other network TV executives have said in just recent months, there really isn't much mystery why we still don't have much broadcast 4K yet. And Chinnock's guess was basically right on the nose.
The main issues still come down to "economics and bandwidth," Michael Fidler, president of the UHD Alliance (UHDA), told me at CES. Noting that broadcasters have tended to only use 4K so far for "marquee kind of events," he said: "They think in a lot of cases and instances that 1080p is enough," although "they love HDR [and] want HDR," and even want High Frame Rate and "for the bigger events, they're switching" to that.
Fidler's take was pretty much in line with what NBC's Lazarus told me in December and what Sinclair Broadcast Group CEO and President Chris Ripley told me at NAB Show New York in October, where he said he didn't think 4K was a "big driver at the end of the day" because the improved picture it provided was "just an incremental benefit" over HD. Sinclair wasn't doing anything with UHD at that point, he said, predicting it would be a long time before UHD became significant and "the future is 1080p HDR."
What may ultimately push the TV networks and TV service providers to step up their UHD broadcast offerings and convince even cable TV service providers to offer their first live broadcast UHD is the same thing that's usually led to them making changes to their offerings and business models in the past: "the competitive market environment," Fidler said. After all, he noted, cable TV in particular is "losing subscribers, so in order to keep and retain, I think they have to have that value proposition" provided by UHD. He predicted that each broadcaster "ultimately will move into a 4K-delivered service," calling that "inevitable" and predicting that "improving algorithms" will also eventually eliminate current bandwidth issues that present a barrier for more companies offering live broadcast 4K.
It's not going to be the sort of major shift that the broadcast industry faced when shifting from standard definition to HD because many of the companies already have 4K cameras and "most of the infrastructure is built for" UHD already, Fidler noted. Live broadcast is "still challenging because you need mobile trucks to do all that" and there's a lot of money involved in making the change there and they're concerned with how they can make that money back, especially when it comes to broadcasting college games, when there may be over 100 sports events that need to be broadcast over just one weekend alone, he said.
The ATSC 3.0 Waiting Game
More widespread 4K broadcasting in the U.S. is also going to come as more of the industry shifts to ATSC 3.0, according to Dan Schinasi, director of product planning for consumer electronics at the Samsung Electronics America division of UHDA member company Samsung. After all, ATSC 3.0 features increased bandwidth efficiency and supports 4K, unlike the current ATSC 1.0 (2.0 was planned but never deployed).
But Schinasi pointed to one major potential barrier to that happening: Unlike the digital transition, there's no government requirement to switch over to ATSC 3.0. "It's completely voluntary," he noted. On the bright side, ATSC 3.0 was already launched by several networks as part of the Phoenix Model Market pilot project. TV groups and stations that participated included local Fox, PBS, Telemundo, and Univision stations. That test was classified as an "initial success" by the participating companies. Even better news was provided at the 2018 NAB Show New York, where executives from Fox Television Stations, NBC/Telemundo-owned stations, Univision, Tegna/Pearl TV, and Nexstar Media Group/Spectrum announced a collaborative effort and support for the introduction of ATSC 3.0. The companies said in a joint announcement that the new standard was "expected to be broadly launched by individual broadcasters beginning in 2020, concurrent with the anticipated introduction of consumer TV products equipped to receive ATSC 3.0."
Noting that was "just one" group of major broadcasters, Schinasi predicted that, "by the end of 2021, there'll be a fair amount" of U.S. TV broadcasters that will have 4K capability. But just because they have the capability doesn't mean all those companies will actually broadcast 4K. "That's yet to be seen," Schinasi said.
One More Barrier
As if there weren't already enough challenges facing broadcast 4K in the U.S., Schinasi also pointed to an additional one: The fact that a TV broadcast spectrum "repack" started in late 2018. As the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) pointed out on its website, "as part of the broadcast spectrum incentive auction," the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is "authorized to repack the television band by assigning television stations to new channels"--a process NAB said "will pose significant challenges for the broadcast industry" and lead to almost 1,000 channels being moved.
"That's kind of a big distraction for some of the broadcasters," Schinasi noted. However, it's a stumbling block that should be removed by the time ATSC 3.0 is more widely implemented in the U.S. in 2020.
In the meantime, sorry UHD TV owners, but you're going to have to just manage with the minimal native broadcast 4K content available, along with upscaled HD content, the fairly large and growing (for now, anyway) number of UHD Blu-ray Discs, and--best of all--the wealth of titles available via streaming from Amazon Prime, Netflix, Vudu, and other such providers. If you are a streamer and/or a cord cutter, a $50-$60 Amazon Fire TV or Roku 4K device, or a smart TV with a few subscriptions, will give you much better access to 4K content.