On Sunday, BBC streamed a full Rugby League match between the York City Knights and Catalans Dragons live in 4K and High Dynamic Range on BBC iPlayer Beta. Welcome to a glimpse into future broadcasting.
Now, I am not sure if this was a secret but, looking at the BBC’s blog entry, it appears that many people missed out on the test looking at the comments. However, with sets such as the Sony XE9005 and the 8K Sharp LV-70X500E, it is good to seen the channel is trying things out.
BBC looking to the future
From the introduction of colour TV on BBC Two for Wimbledon in 1966, to championing free-to-air HDTV for terrestrial viewers, Aunty Beeb has continually pushed to improve picture quality for its viewers.
Lately, the channel has been making select shows available to watch in Ultra-High Definition (UHD) on BBC iPlayer. Having on-demand programmes in UHD is all very well and good, but now they’re taking the next step by streaming live UHD content.
Live UHD programming
On Sunday, the Rugby League match between the York City Knights and Catalans Dragons was shown live in UHD and High Dynamic Range on BBC iPlayer Beta. This is the first time the Beeb has streamed a live event in such high quality. This could well be a run-up to showing the soccer World Cup in 4K.
For those unfamiliar with the terminology, UHD takes advantage of higher resolution TVs to provide exceptional clarity of picture. HDR takes this further with greater detail in the shadows and dark areas of the picture. Furthermore, you also get more natural and brighter highlights and mirror-like reflections.
The BBC uses a type of HDR called Hybrid Log-Gamma (HLG). This was actually invented by BBC Research & Development and Japanese broadcaster, NHK.
Due to the way HLG represents light you will see the most natural colours possible on TV. The channels’ last experiment saw the whole series of Blue Planet II on BBC iPlayer in UHD HDR. As you can imagine, this looked amazing.
The BBC chooses to use HLG for BBC iPlayer because it fits very well and reliably into existing live production workflows. It also provides a great picture not only to HDR devices, but to standard dynamic range (SDR) devices that support the BT.2020 wide colour gamut as well.
Being able to support both HDR and SDR TVs with the same bitstream makes sense for BBC as it’s cost-effective. Additionally, it makes the content available to as wide a range of devices as possible.
However, making the move from on-demand UHD programmes to live UHD footage presents significant engineering challenges. High quality real-time HEVC encoding of UHD is still in its infancy. Also, it is much more demanding for live programmes than for on-demand. This all adds up to the broadcaster having to use higher distribution bitrates, and that people’s TVs will need to work harder to show the best picture. Not to mention those of us that don’t have high-speed broadband, even when we live in Zone 3 of London. Just saying.
Are you up for the World Cup in 4K?