Is It Time for 4K?

NEW YORK—The broadcast television landscape has changed dramatically over the past 10 years, and the next 10 look to be just as fraught with change. For decades prior to the digital transition, the standard definition signals that were transmitted to home televisions remained remarkably the same. Viewers were content with a slow migration from black and white to color.

Then came the HD revolution. While adaptation started slowly, the changes put in place from acquisition to transmission completely changed the playing field for broadcasters. Once unshackled by the technical limits of analog, the world of digital broadcasting opened up countless new challenges and rewards for both broadcasters and viewers.

The latest technical challenge is the rapid increase in the ability to acquire and display higher resolution video, namely the format called “Ultra HD,” also referred to as “4K.” This format provides roughly four times the image resolution as the current implementation of HD. This is great news for content creators and consumer electronics manufacturers who see great potential for new sales. For broadcasters, however, it is just another hurdle that they have to face in the ever competitive battle for eyeballs on screens.

“The traditional broadcaster is once again being left behind,” said John Wesley Nash, executive vice president and COO of CEI. The Newington, Va.-based systems integrator, which builds everything from TV stations to production facilities, is already seeing an interest in 4K UHD from cable headends, content providers and government clients. Broadcasters, on the other hand, are hesitant. “If history is any sort of guide, standards adoption in broadcast is a slow process,” he said.

John Wesley Nash‘GOOD ENOUGH’

There is a debate among industry experts on the role 4K UHD will play in broadcast. Some believe that true 1080p/60 makes the most sense for the near term, while others say that 4K will just be a temporary placeholder standard on the way to 8K home viewing. The challenge in the next 10 years for broadcasters will be choosing the correct format for their audience, and whether they even want to try to compete with over the top providers like NetFlix, Hulu and cable MSOs, who will be able to more quickly adopt and distribute content in the newer formats.

Formats: What’s In a Name?

There has been much debate and inconsistency in naming new video formats. Manufacturers, broadcasters and consumer electronics manu- facturers have muddied the waters with various misnomers.

“High definition” has been defined by the ATSC is either 1080i, 1080p (1920x1080), or 720p (1920x720). 4K, which is actually a digital cinema term according to SMPTE, is cor- rectly called UHDTV1 per their SMPTE 2036 standard. Most broadcasters and industry folks agree that the terms 2-4-8K will be around as they are easy to say and sell. 4K UHD, or 4K Ultra High Definition is a middle ground that many feel covers both bases.

HD has up to this point been described by using its vertical resolution, or how many pix- els top to bottom. The new terms 4K and 8K refer to the horizontal resolution instead. Thus 4K is 3840x2160 (for broadcast) and 8K is 7680x4320.

4K(8.3 Megapixels) is four times the pixels of HD (2.1 Mp), and 8K (33.2 Mp) is 16 times the pixels of HD.

The current format of 4K on the market to- day is 4K UHD 30p, or 30 frames per second, where “full 4K” is 60p or 60 frames per sec- ond. The added frames per second will make a big difference for sports and fast action video. Unfortunately, there are no current players or interfaces for the format. HDMI 1.4 only sup- ports 30 frames per second and until HEVC is implemented there are no consumer devices that can play this back. When HDMI 2.0 is re- leased, it is supposed to support all 4K formats.

—Ian MacSpadden

“When people shop for TVs in a store, they don’t view them from the same distance they do at home, they walk right up to them,” said Mark Schubin, a New Yorkbased broadcasting technology expert. “There is a huge difference between HD and 4K at this distance that is immediately apparent.”

This is where the consumer electronics folks hope to create the market for their new sets. Schubin notes that the European Broadcasting Union presented results at the Hollywood Post Alliance’s last tech retreat in February that showed there was only a small statistical increase in the viewing experience of 4K over HD, even when done properly.

“Will it be enough of a difference to draw people to buy a new TV set?” Schubin mused.


When considering whether 4K UHD is “better” than standard HD, the term “viewing experience” is always brought up. There is no disputing that the 4K UHD picture has more detail, but the question is when is it a better viewing experience for the home viewer. “It’s not just the raw spatial resolution itself that matters, it’s the fact that you are sitting closer, which provides a greater sense of realism,” said Matthew Goldman, senior vice president of TV compression at Ericsson.

“I see projector-based home theaters being replaced by 80-plus inch 4K TVs,” said CEI’s Nash.

The reason 4K UHD wins out in the big screen wars is its ability to create a more immersive experience, according to Goldman, who explains that as resolution increases, the viewer can sit closer and thus have a greater percentage of their field of vision filled with images. Whether viewers at home will demand this resolution for their daily news and sports is another question.

In the end, content will probably drive the viewing format. For those who crave sports, the picture quality and clarity of 4K UHD at 60p would satisfy any avid viewer. Today though, 4K is being done at 30p, which for sports, does not work well due to motion jutter. For daytime and prime time viewing, the audiences will probably be mixed. Local news that often airs cell phone and surveillance quality video may take the longest to get to the higher resolution.

Matthew Goldman, EricssonCONTENT CREATION

“If you are editing in 2K or 1080, you are totally going to benefit from shooting 4K,” said Jim Kent, DP and owner of Phoenixbased Art Gecko Productions.

As a content creator he sees 4K as a terrific authoring medium for lesser formats.

“You can shoot everything wide with 4K and still be able to get your zooms whenever you need then,” he explains. Though he likes the promise and potential of the format for artistic reasons, he says “it is not yet a convenient format.” By this he means that the lenses available today for 4K cameras don’t cover the focal range he currently has in HD. “Covering the Super 35mm sensor is what is most important to me right now,” he continued. The largest selections of lenses that are available to him are from the 35mm world.

The cost of the limited number of 4K UHD lenses, including Fujinon’s newest releases in their premiere 4K line, are in the $100,000 range. This price range is in stark contrast to the cameras such as Blackmagic Design’s Pocket Cinema Camera, which costs under $2,000. With a garage full of tens of thousands of dollars in SD cameras and lens gear that he can’t unload, Kent is in no hurry to make the investment in 4K.

He does see the format eventually winning out, however. “I see it replacing film and as an acquisition format for broadcast production, 4K is probably going to be where the formats will settle out.”

With many broadcasters currently choosing lower cost 1/3-inch chip cameras from JVC and Panasonic to meet their HD news needs, the choice to migrate up to 4K UHD seems a stretch. The good news is that whether HD or 4K UHD, most acquisition and edit workflows today have moved to the file-based world, which makes the initial entry into 4K UHD the easy part. In this workflow, video is shot and stored in a file format, transferred to an editor and then can be output in whatever format is required.


“I expect terrestrial broadcasters to resist 4K,” says Nash, who recalls the push-back he experienced while on a panel at SMPTE’s “Bits By the Bay” conference in Cheseapeake Bay, Md. last month. “There was a lot of resistance from broadcasters to even talk about 4K,” he said. Because of the transition to digital, and broadcasters who continue to challenge upgrading to HD—a cost most of them bore themselves—he feels that they won’t be rushing any time soon to rebuild their plants.

Ian MacSpadden