These are confusing times for the broadcast market; 4K, HDR, High Frame Rate, IP Connectivity. With all these possibilities competing for attention and market share it’s easy to see why few of them have made significant penetration into broadcast. Yes, there are some leaders in the various fields, but over the industry as a whole, the fence seems a very comfortable place to sit right now. Never has there been so much opportunity for technological advance and never has there been so much uncertainty of direction. Up to now, television has advanced in a very linear fashion, future steps easy to see in advance; High Definition 1(625) - Colour – satellite – cable – digital - High Definition 2 - etc. Right now we aren’t just at a fork in the road, but a multi-offset junction with some exits re-joining the main carriageway and some leading into cul-de-sacs.
Over the last 10 years there has been significant investment into HDSDI infrastructure and equipment so it looks like things will be slow to change to 4K. Given the fact that most consumers are still watching TV in SD and seem not to be able to see the difference between SD and HD on their TV sets, it’s a wonder that 4K is making any headway at all. Most deliverables are still in HD so why would production companies go to the added expense of 4k? Of course, we TV professionals love to keep pushing the technological boundaries and creating better pictures and easier workflows, but this does need to be paid for.
A good indicator of this being true is that sales are still strong in HD. Many in broadcasting expected the step up to 4K to be similar to the step from SD to HD. Having found that the 4K step is much higher, many have found it difficult to reach. Simple things like cables, good enough for SD and HD, don’t work at 4K. It has to be either compressed or fibre. It’s worth remembering that 4k is 8x the data of 1080i HD, not just 2x or 4x. This amount of data needs a corresponding amount of capacity and bandwidth which needs building into the infrastructure before 4K becomes a day-to-day reality. For this you need investment, and with ever more channels on ever shrinking budgets some hard decisions will need to be made before many can take the next step. It may be that we end up with a 2-tier industry, some remaining with HD and a few ‘blue-chip’ broadcasters moving to 4K.
The promise for an ‘all-IP’ infrastructure now appears to be the objective rather than what’s actually possible right now. IP guys are not broadcast guys and there’s some way to go before both sides understand enough to communicate fully and make real decisions. Not helping, is the lack of a defined IP standard – come to that, a defined standard for 4K would be a start. Instead, we have individual manufacturers and interest groups developing their own methods of using the IP infrastructure. They have to, to keep in the game, but overall it handicaps forward movement because no-one wants to be left with an obsolete system the moment a standard is defined. My personal view is that there will be a half-way step before we reach ‘all-IP’ infrastructures. It’s beginning to look as though transporting HDSDI over IP will be this half-way step, as a method of going part-way there, yet still utilising the HDSDI investment already in existence, along with familiar practices which have served well so far. Considering the learning curve required for broadcast technicians and engineers to take advantage of IP, one can see that the static inertia will need a good shove to overcome. After all, the drive is to cut costs, so adding IP specialists to the engineering workforce is not really an option.
What we can be pretty sure of is, for most production applications, high speed networks will be required and for these, only fibre-based networks deliver the speed required, whether this is as HDSDI, 4K, IP or a hybrid of all. The amount of data we send is ever-increasing, so even if your copper-based networks are coping now, it’s a safe bet that they won’t in the near future.
To keep things in perspective it’s worth bearing in mind that an ever increasing number of consumers are quite happy watching YouTube on their PCs and content on their mobiles and tablets – not even SD much of the time, but they like the content. And there we may have it . . . . . CONTENT. It seems to me that the vast majority of television consumers don’t have much of an opinion on the quality, provided it meets a very low standard, but are actually primarily interested in the content. Perhaps we should be prioritising further the creation of content over technology and remembering that the horse comes before the cart.
In conclusion then, although the fence is comfortable right now, the tide of technology is always changing and learning to swim is high on the agenda. Otherwise we may find ourselves floundering when the new wave of technology sweeps over us.
This thought piece was written by David Bradley, our Development Director. David has been in the industry for many years, working as a BBC camera operator and then as a freelance camera operator, before setting up Bradley Engineering which became BR Remote.
If you would like to respond to David please contact him via firstname.lastname@example.org, or connect with him on LinkedIn.
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