After 3DTV burnout, ESPN cautious on Ultra HD

After becoming one of the first to broadcast it and then getting burned on the failure of 3-D television, ESPN is holding back its bet on 4K television — the purported “the next big thing” from television set manufacturers.

Chuck Pagano, ESPN’s vice president and CTO, told via Satellite last week that despite some experiments with on-air 4K footage, the Disney-owned series of sports channels has no plans to set up a 4K Ultra HD channel for its viewers. In addition, Pagano said, there’s no demand from satellite providers like Dish and DirecTV for such a channel.

This would appear to be a blow to companies like Sony, Samsung and LG, which are aggressively pushing Ultra HD, the trade name for 4K (and someday higher resolution sets) in the marketplace. The promotions are mostly hype — since few 4K television sets have actually been sold (despite decreasing process) and the broadcasting industry has yet to set technical standards for distributing 4K content.

Sony and Red Digital/Odemax are the only companies currently delivering 4K to the home, but that’s from home servers. Everyone agrees that next-generation compression schemes such as HEVC (H.265) are required to allow live 4K to be practically delivered to the home.

Intelsat and Ericsson have demonstrated a 4K end-to-end video transmission via satellite. Intelsat’s Galaxy 13 satellite delivered a 4:2:2 10-bit, 4K Ultra-HD signal at 60fps in an experimental broadcast. The signal was encoded and decoded in real time by Ericsson using its AVP 2000 contribution encoders and RX8200 receivers.

“We can accommodate the next-generation signals as soon as broadcasters are ready to offer them,” Matthew Goldman, senior vice president of TV compression technology at Ericsson, told via Satellite. “Commercial broadcasters may not begin to procure bandwidth for 4K broadcasts until 2015, at the earliest. It could even be longer.”

Like 3-D television, Ultra HD was conceived to sell higher priced television equipment in a market where standard HD sets have become a low-cost commodity. Sony’s 55in XBR 55X900A, at $4000, is at the low end of this market, while Samsung’s 85in UN85S9AF is priced at more than $30,000. These high prices are expected, like all other electronic goods, to fall rapidly.

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), charged with promoting the technology, said Ultra HD is expected to see increased adoption as consumers become more familiar with it, manufacturers reduce prices and content providers embrace the format.

Yet, with the 3-D debacle fresh in the memory of many production companies, the slow-going process of adopting Ultra HD is understandable. Right now, almost everything is promotion. Whether buyers value it enough to spend the money will determine its ultimate fate, just as with 3DTV.