Beyond the Cable
4K Sets the Stage for Tomorrow's Entertainment Opportunities
By Aaron Taylor
People can see a difference in 4K resolution compared to 1080i, 1080p and 720p HD images.
In very non-technical terms it is deeper, richer, more satisfying.
That's why CES (Consumer Electronics Show) visitors saw a dizzying array of 4K UHD smart TVs this year.
Cable companies and a few industry analysts are quick to point out that:
- there is no 4K content available
- The cable service isn't able to handle the higher data rate throughput
That's why they project that 4K UHD will either be slow to take off or worse will suffer the same fate as stereoscopic 3D.
But if you sat through something as exciting and breathtaking as Alfonso Cuarón's and his son Jason's Gravity, it is apparent that it's the next stage of film and video production.
Stereoscopic 3D suffered because of its widespread misuse/overuse as well as poor marketing and sales activities -- poor demonstrations, poorly trained people to explain, install and educate the consumer in its use.
Difference is Obvious
4K UHD production and viewing won't suffer from these shortcomings because the difference between 4K and HD content is apparent by even the most untrained eyes.
4K content production, delivery, enjoyment will increase more rapidly than many expect not just because people will buy UHD TV sets more quickly than anticipated but because 4K content production - new and old - is more economic than in the past.
More importantly, there are alternative distribution solutions available to content owners and channels.
Low-cost 4K ($400 - $4,000) cameras such as those introduced by GoPro, Black Magic and SONY as well as very economic production and post-production systems are putting the technology into more professional hands - studios, independents and even businesses that focus on education, training, service/support.
And because production costs are lower today, viewer demand for high quality content will accelerate the shift more quickly than we saw when the industry moved from SD to HD.
Still the most vocal opponents, cable companies, are claiming that that they simply cannot push more pixels through their fiber. The reality is, they are rapidly losing customers to OTT services and bandwidth is their last solid foothold with their customers. For cable and SAT to support 4k, they would need a major infrastructure overhaul, not to mentioned the tens of millions of HD STBs, which will not support 4k, will need to be replaced as well.
But rather than simply putting more pixels of data on the screen technologists are developing new approaches that focus on delivering higher frame rates, better bit rates and a broader color gamut more effectively with lower bandwidth requirements
Standards organizations like SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) are already developing more efficient solutions for delivering (streaming) content rather than forcing native 4K content delivery.
The real entertainment and informational value to people is a combination of resolution and contrast. Higher camera resolution and a narrower dynamic image range of images simply decreases the image contrast which cable firms say is necessary to attract and retain viewers.
To support the SMPTE approach EBU (European Broadcast Union) studies have shown that more pixels don't necessarily deliver sharper images which are a perceived value to people.
This combination of resolution and contrast can be produced by backing off camera resolution so a wider dynamic range of video content can be captured.
SMPTE fellow Mark Schubin calculates that increasing the data rate from 8-bit to 10-bit and 10-bit to 12-bit doesn't produce better results when compared to a higher dynamic range.
It calls for the use of a color gamut that is significantly larger than the current HDTV standard, Rec. 709. This will require increased bit depth beyond 8-bits too, otherwise contouring will be evident. But, as noted above, increasing bit depth does not add a lot of date rate increase.
The bottom line is that for UHD native content with higher dynamic range, 10 to 12-bits of color sampling and the Rec. 2020 color gamut will require much higher data rates.
Instead of focusing on delivering more pixels (data rate) at the expense of bit depth, frame rate and expanded color gamut doesn't produce and deliver what the viewing public wants...cleaner, crisper, sharper and more enjoyable images.
As a result it is better to capture pristine imagery at the outset then efficiently deliver the content to today's 4K UHD TV sets rather than to do what the cable companies want to do, move all of the heavy processing down to the TV set.
Beyond the Gate Keepers
Fortunately there are options to the cable gate keepers.
With high-speed Internet to the home and people taking advantage of the smart capabilities of Smart TVs, cable companies are losing their grip on home video entertainment.
Even Nielsen recently announced they will be tracking/counting content/video streams to the TV set and home/personal devices.
To "stimulate" consumers to replace their HD sets with 4K screens, UHD TV set manufacturers are working directly with content owners to deliver material now rather than waiting for the cable gatekeepers to negotiate distribution
Streaming media was initially targeted at PCs but with compact, easy-to-install/-use streaming media players, over-the-top video is increasingly being used/enjoyed.
Content owners are increasingly using streaming services like Amazon and Netflix to deliver their pay-per-view content.
In addition Internet-capable TVs, game systems and compact, inexpensive streaming media players like Roku and Nuvola have reduced the consumers cost and simplified the installation and use of streaming media.
In addition, the devices have broadened the consumer's entertainment options by giving access to free/paid general entertainment and highly specialized (narrowcast) educational/informational video from sources such as YouTube and UltraFlix.
The new distribution solution has become so important that CBS is making more and more of its content available to people who stream their entertainment at a time convenient to them rather than the program schedule.
CBS officials recently said that the streaming option enables the company to reach the more elusive younger audience that the traditional network approach typical network broadcast viewer.
More importantly, streaming media devices and services have opened the way for studios, indies and businesses/institutions to reach larger new and specialty audiences.
Free/paid OTT streaming enables more content owners and producers to directly monetize their film/video content, making legacy TV services less relevant.
Despite the new and improved equipment, producing new 4K content is still an expensive/time consuming process.
Studios, content owners are also taking another route to improving their cash flow by mining their libraries of content, refreshing that content and have it streamed beautifully to the new online audience.
Film and production studios have repeatedly repurposed/represented old movies and shows using the latest format and resolution and offered the "new" content to an eager - and profitable - market.
In fact, talking with one of ABC's content curators a few months ago she said she had more than 150PB of content she was saving for "tomorrow."
While some organizations simply upscale their content to 4K most industry experts agree the results are far from satisfactory and look as bad as when the industry moved from SD to HD because the finished product is muddy and full of artifacts.
Thus organizations that maintain a tight control on their quality image reputation go to a more extensive repurposing approach internally or externally with such services as 4K Studios.
This entails using Ultra HD scanners for 35mm or 16mm film and digitizing each frame at different red, green and blue light levels; creating an HDR 4K image of each frame and repairing most of the film defects and scratches.
By repurposing rather than upscaling, studios and content owners can quickly and economically breathe new life into their film and video content that is clean, crisp, noise free and ready for streaming delivery.
All without having to wait for cable services to "up their services."
With cable companies losing their grip on the TV set viewing public and the growing use of streaming media solutions for 4K UHD TV sets and content owners the blowback has all but disappeared.
TV and online used to be two separate worlds.
Today there are no longer any borders between the two and in the near future linear TV over the cable will be a distant memory.
The sooner film and video production operations move to delivering 4K content the sooner the transition will take place.