Sky Deutschland’s great expectations for UHD

The German pay TV broadcaster Sky is an early adopter when it comes to new technologies. Since 2012, the private broadcaster has been testing HD at various live broadcast events, but the four-fold higher resolution alone won‘t trigger an evolution in TV. Accordingly, during the recent Champions League game Dortmund vs. Istanbul, Sky conducted experiments with various shots, editing styles and positions in order to find out the ultimate production form for UHD.

The results are still being evaluated. Besides the programme signal, Sky also recorded separately the signals of six UHD cameras. Stephan Heimbacher, head of innovations & standards at Sky, is convinced that UHD requires a different kind of visual language, in particular the huge wide shots from goal to goal are very much appreciated by the TV viewers because they are impressed by the richness of detail. Because this is not keeping the audience in line for the whole game, it is also necessary to come up with more dynamic shots and to zoom into the game. But the shift between close-ups and wide shots in UHD also carries the risk that the viewer might lose the overview because he is fascinated by all the details in the wide shots. For this reason Heimbacher believes that UHD requires a good combination of storytelling and classic game reporting.

While production-wise, the manufacturers developed new 4K cameras, on the consumer side there are already about 70,000 UHD displays in Germany. If UHD will become the standard format for Sky’s sport programming or will be limited for special events is not decided yet. Since late 2012, the German pay TV broadcaster has tested UHD at several soccer games. In April 2014, Sky did the first live broadcast event in UHD at the Bundesliga game Bavaria vs. Bremen. “This was a crucial milestone for us,” states Heimbacher. Previously, a live broadcast in UHD was not possible because the encoders were not capable of converting UHD content in real-time in HEVC. Meanwhile, manufacturers integrated the HEVC codecs in their decoders and encoders.

A couple of weeks later, Sky followed up with the German Cup Final in Berlin. At this game, the pay TV broadcaster investigated different aspects such as various camera angels with cameras behind the goal. In addition, Sky integrated upscaled HD camera signals, for example from a spidercam in order to see if this is going to work in a good way.

All these technical tests are made to find out if UHD is already in a position to become a default for programming. In addition, it needs to be considered if HD and UHD production should be done separately or if it is possible to downscale UHD. Since Sky doesn’t plan to switch from one day to another to UHD, it is still collecting experiences.

At the Super Cup in Dortmund in the summer of 2014, Sky tried to produce the same footage in HD as well as in UHD so that certain scenes and clips could be compared directly. One of the conclusions from this experiment was that the TV viewers of live sport events realise the higher quality of UHD. But further improvements such as high dynamic range, high frame rates or an extended colour space are not integrated in UHD yet.

“If these elements are added in the next step,” concludes Heimbacher. “UHD will get a real boost in terms of image quality.” On top of that, S3D might get an improvement in terms of quality due to the higher resolution. Theoretically, it would be even possible to distribute live sports in UHD via IP, but Sky is looking for real, enduring improvements: “Our goal is to create an obvious additional value for the viewer.”

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