IOC Analysis: An Olympic-size bump in the road for 4K broadcast adoption

The 2015 version of the annual NAB convention is only weeks away, and, although many exhibitors will be placing bets on 4K production and distribution equipment, it sure looks like broadcasters will not. The most recent sign of reticence is the announcement by Olympic Broadcast Services (OBS) that there will not be a 4K produced feed of the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics available to rightsholders.

“There is no demand from our rights holders for 4K,” asserted Yiannis Exarchos, CEO of Olympic Broadcast Services during an interview with The Hollywood Reporter (for the complete story click here). “We have to take our cue from broadcasters.”

There is plenty of logic to the OBS decision. First and foremost, OBS simply responds to the needs of rightsholders. If enough broadcasters say they want a 4K service (or a 3D service), OBS will provide it. If there isn’t enough interest, it will not provide the service.

The good news is that individual rightsholders are not prevented from creating their own 4K productions. That, for example, is how and why there will be 8K at the Rio Games: NHK is willing to pick up the costs of the production.

But rightsholders’ lack of interest in a 4K service points to a few underlying problems that will prevent 4K broadcasting from truly taking off until, most likely, 2017.

There is no way, currently, to deliver 4K over-the-air broadcast signals to homes, and the vast majority of Olympic-rights holders are public broadcasters who rely on OTA to reach viewers. So, until over-the-air 4K broadcasting is sorted out, which most likely won’t occur in the U.S. before 2017, the need for 4K content is negligible on a global level.

And then there are the technical challenges of making a broadcast facility capable of ingesting and playing out 4K content. Yes, some of the pieces are in place, but there is still much technical innovation required to give broadcasters a clear upgrade path from HD to 4K when it comes to master control and playout.

Aside from the technical issues, there is also the financial challenge. The vast majority of the world’s Olympic-rights holders are public broadcasters, many of whom have budgets that are squeezed more than ever. And, even when the technical hurdles are overcome, that financial challenge will be yet another reason to not make the leap to 4K.

HD to UHD: The PAL precedent

The industry has, of course, been here before. It may seem that HD has been around forever but it really wasn’t until 2008 that HDTV became ubiquitous. And it is worth remembering the tumultuous early years of HD broadcasting and the constant state of uncertainty as companies committed to, then backed off regarding HD. And then there was nearly a decade of U.S. broadcasters’ hearing from their European counterparts that widescreen PAL was all that was needed and that Europe would most likely skip 720p and 1080i and go to 1080p.

European broadcasters never did deliver on that 1080p promise. And, ironically, 1080p is now seen as a real, possible solution for meeting viewers’ 4K needs. The newest 4K consumer sets have rock-solid internal upconversion technology that, according to reports, can do wonders with a 1080p signal.

So what does this mean for NAB 2015? It may very well be reminiscent of some of the NAB Shows in the late ’90s when broadcasters didn’t quite know what to do. Replace aging SD gear with better SD gear? Take the plunge on HD? Or get another year or two out of SD gear and wait and see how HD evolves?

The one thing that the industry does need is a sense that the broadcast industry is moving in a single direction. The 4K marketplace will begin to take shape and form via broadband and over-the-top delivery in the coming months. But the B in NAB stands for broadcasters and it’s doubtful that NAB 2015 will really provide a sense of where the industry is headed with respect to next-generation broadcast services. But one can certainly hope that there are some new technologies on hand that will enlighten the conversation.

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