Soccer matches in the UK. Baseball and hockey in Canada. Next year may be the tipping point for 4K sports broadcasting.
Following on the heels of BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) in Europe, which launched its Ultra HD sports channel in July, Canadian cable operator Rogers Communications Inc. (Toronto: RCI) has announced it will broadcast more than 100 live sporting events in UHD in 2016. That includes 4K coverage of Toronto Blue Jays baseball games and major match-ups from the National Hockey League. (See also BT Preps UHD TV Channel With Ericsson.)
The real question for viewers in the US, however, is when will sports network ESPN take the UHD plunge? Or at the very least, when will viewers have an opportunity to watch any games from the American sports franchises in Ultra HD?
There's reason for hope.
ESPN has long been at the forefront of broadcast technology, and the network has many of the necessary technical assets in place for a 4K migration whenever it chooses to make the move. The studio where SportsCenter is filmed, for example, can support 4K and even 8K broadcasts. Also, ESPN already shoots some content using 4K cameras, although the footage is largely used for zoom-in shots of game-changing plays.
Spokesperson Kevin Ota for ESPN even confirms that, "We have more than enough technical capacity/capability to make the move when we choose." And, he adds, "We have a history of looking at new technologies and formats, and new and better ways to serve sports fans with our content."
However, Ota also says about UHD broadcasting: "We're looking into it, and I think we'll make a decision as far as what we would do with 4K when the time is right for us, and I think it's fair to say that it isn't right at this point for what we want to do."
So why doesn't ESPN move forward?
For one thing, the network was burned with 3D TV. After launching a standalone channel with much fanfare in 2010, ESPN quietly folded its 3D TV experiment in 2013. (See ESPN Exits the Third Dimension.)
For another, much of the US has lacked the necessary infrastructure for widespread 4K video distribution, and there's still a limited ecosystem for 4K technology. Along those lines, it's noteworthy that Rogers is tying its 4K launch to the expansion of gigabit networks. Those networks are what will make it possible to support not only high-speed broadband, but also bandwidth-heavy TV signals. US operators are heading in the same direction with new gigabit service tiers in select cities.
Ultra HD will also get a boost once high-dynamic range (HDR) technology is incorporated with UHD viewing, offering consumers brighter, more vivid pictures in addition to higher image resolution. Rogers has already committed to launching HDR next April.
Pay-TV providers in the US have made very cautious moves toward 4K. These include Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) and DirecTV Group Inc. (NYSE: DTV) debuting limited UHD services, and Dish Network LLC (Nasdaq: DISH) promising (though not yet delivering) new 4K Joey set-tops. More is on the agenda for next year, including an HDR set-top from Comcast and more UHD content. (See Meet DirecTV's 4K Genie Mini and Comcast Plans 4K & HDR Set-tops.)
This year's holiday shopping season also promises plenty of 4K flair with the recent launch of several retail UHD set-tops, including the TiVo Bolt, Roku 4 and Amazon Fire TV. The annual end-of-year shopping spree should set consumers up nicely for 4K TV in 2016. (See TiVo Takes Aim With Bolt.)
As always, there's a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem when a new TV technology arrives. Do you start with content or with distribution when trying to drive critical mass? In the case of Ultra HD, however, once live sports are available, that's likely to be a catalyst for widespread adoption.
Ota says that ESPN isn't feeling any added pressure now that BT and Rogers have committed resources to live 4K sports. But pressure is sure to mount, particularly as other broadcasters follow suit. The momentum behind UHD sports is growing. Here's hoping ESPN jumps into the game sooner rather than later.
— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading