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Headlong into 4K

The pace of technological change is accelerating, as I was reminded the other day looking over shelves full of videotape cassettes. “How last century,” I was thinking. From month to month, the change may seem imperceptible, but inexorably the pace quickens.

When I first worked for a broadcaster, many cameras were 10 to 15 years old. As long as they could produce an SD PAL signal of sorts, they would do. The oldest were pressed back into to service during times of great demand, like elections. Those not so old were redeployed to outlying regions.

Back then, there was a large team of maintenance guys that could keep stuff going. They would replace components and patch things up. However, over time it became apparent that the cost of maintenance was more than the cost of replacement. The cost of a component like a thick film module was the equivalent of 10 minutes of a technician’s time, but it could take two hours to diagnose a fault, repair and align the module. It didn’t make economic sense. It’s all about field replaceable units now, generally an entire PCB.

When I was researching the camera feature in this issue, I learned that OB cameras now have a life of four years, one-third of what it was in those old days of analog SD. These cameras are not worn out; it’s just that the very latest cameras produce better pictures, and that is what the clients want.

Looking forward, it gets more uncertain. The latest production cameras have 3Gb/s outputs, 1080p50 and 1080p60, but 4K looms ominously. Will these 3G cameras be obsolete next year, when directors demand 4K? The same applies to lenses, switchers and routers. A truck could be consigned to minor projects because it is only HD-capable, and that implies a bargain rate.

Some would say the answer lies in leasing. Don’t own equipment; lease the latest technology. But leasing companies will hike the rates if the useful life of the equipment is shortening.

Does the answer lie with future-proofing technology purchasing? Well, if we knew what the future held, that might hold true, but we don’t. When NHK launched Super Hi-Vision, the roll-out roadmap slated 2025 for broadcasts, but already indications are that UHDTV broadcasts could start much earlier.

Sports television may support this technology race, but other genres don’t attract the same budgets. And do viewers on mobile devices need the same resolution as the primary set in the living room? Although broadcasters have tended to run channels in one format — SD or HD, 720 or 1080 — IP-delivered content links format to the content, rather than a channel. The single-format channel stems from the need to avoid set-top boxes clunking from one format to another and potentially disrupting a commercial.

Back to reality, how are the SD reruns that fill our screens going to look on high-resolution displays and alongside 4K broadcasts? The human visual system can be very forgiving. Remember how we used to watch VHS recordings? The color resolution was bad, the noise was unacceptable, and picture stability was marginal, yet the public watched it. There was no other way to record video in the home (apart from Betamax — but that is a different story).

David Austerberry, editor