4K, Ready? Or not? It’s coming!

A nice to have or will it move the needle?

From the Women’s World Cup to England’s dramatic comeback in the Ashes, a summer of exceptional sporting events is coming to a close. When the broadcast industry breaks down its stands and heads home with an IBC hangover it’ll then be time for the Rugby World Cup to kick-off in Japan. 2020 will see 2019’s year of sport and raise it a European Championships in Football (men’s) in June then almost immediately after, the greatest sporting stage of all, the Olympic Games.

The best way to enjoy these famous sporting events is in person to soak up the electric atmosphere they create. But for those of us not lucky enough to be there in person – either by winning ballots, volunteering or attending corporate hospitality – we’ll be enjoying a great view from the comfort of our living rooms, or snatching the odd OTT stream on our mobiles during the commute. 

The 4K Debate

For the top broadcasters, who can afford the key sports rights, delivering 4K workflows is on the horizon and it’s big events where they’ll look to make a splash. Further, for those broadcasters whose business is actually broadcasting (rather than a loss leader to sell internet subscriptions), 4K needs to be, not only technically viable, but cost effective too. At a recent AWS event in Stockholm I asked a question of the Head Engineering for the major sports broadcaster, in the Scandinavian market, about their plans for 4K delivery. The answer, simply, they didn’t have any ambitions for 4K. Why not? Because they’ve got such a dominant share of the market that they have no need to evolve their service to offer 4K. Their value is that they have almost all of the major sports on their service, and they see a better use of their time in improving the UI and recommendations engine as they also offer dramas, movies, and other entertainment shows. A fair answer; if it ain’t broke…

I think the argument for 4K is with those broadcasters looking to make up market share. To bring in new audiences one could argue that they should really be thinking hard about where their value add is. Perhaps they have fewer yet more prestigious rights, such an English Premier League or Formula 1, or rights which have a large local appeal, e.g. handball in Denmark. The plan being to specialise, go into those properties in a bigger way and become the true home of that particular sport or league within their country. Will that bring more subscribers? It certainly won’t deter them. 

What about two top broadcasters in one market going head to head with the same tournament rights? One Free-to-air, one commercial, with the same tournament rights. It’s likely the FTA broadcaster will win the ratings game with the biggest difference being the lack of adverts, but what are the commercial broadcaster’s plans to mitigate that? Perhaps a 4K offering will entice those fans with a 4K ready TV, plenty of those being sold we should remember. I would probably watch a few adverts for that quality. Whatever the broadcaster’s driver to exploring 4K, the vendors need to provide the answer to delivery.

A 4K Future?

As an innovative supplier working in event-based live video, we are constantly looking at what the market’s going to need next. Therefore providing 4K Live Streaming (in public cloud) on a tournament basis is something we’re currently building. From our perspective to this point, we’ve seen a high-level of interest but a mixed level of follow through from our customers and prospects. Why is this? The pros are obvious, it’s better quality – undoubtedly 4K is impressive to look at. It’s progressive tech and offers the viewer a better experience, surely the way of the future. The cons? Well, there are a number of barriers to entry and most revolve around cost. Firstly, rights – it’s an additional fee if you want to offer 4K. Then delivery costs, you need to backhaul to your broadcast hub. Further, that’s not taking into account any of your production workflow, as you’ll probably want to insert your own promos, logos and branding, advertising rendering etc. You’ll need to produce those in 4K. There’s a lot to consider and as always, there’s a few ways to skin the cat.  

Perhaps the biggest commercial barrier is contribution into the cloud (assuming you’re in the cloud, which you really should be by now). It’s a huge amount of data that needs to be moved into the cloud before you can start encoding for consumer delivery. With all this to consider broadcasters will want to keep 4K workflows separate and not upset their run rate HD streaming set-ups. That said, buying racks of tin for a few events a year will likely not get passed a canny financial director, so it’s more than likely that 4K will run in the cloud.

So, will 4K delivery and streaming become the new norm? I think yes. As data charges for contribution and egress fall and level off we’ll see 4K become the new norm as rights owners will set their sights on the next value add; 8K or …maybe some virtual reality immersion – see the game through Messi’s eyes experience. Until then, I think 4K will be the way we consume sport on OTT and one thing is certain, orchestrating the streams on a event-basis in public cloud is the only way to make it scale economically. 

About the author

As Head of Sales, Hamish Muiry is responsible for developing M2A Media‘s strategic sales operation and international growth.