Beyond Movies: UltraHD Sports & Linear Programming

Dec. 5, 2016, 12:15 p.m.
Sam Rosen, Managing Director and VP, Video, OTT and AR/VR

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Sports leagues, advertisers, and broadcasters looking to impress sponsors, develop their future technology platform, and impressed fans have started to invest in at least a single UltraHD camera rig and production system, capable of producing a predictable pace of premium UltraHD content. Many distributors today are thinking of delivering this content as demonstrations, with a relatively few offering ongoing services in UltraHD. Some recent UltraHD content distributed to consumers, including sports and arts content, includes:

  • Sports: Champions League, Barclays Premier League, UEFA Europa League, FA Cup, ICC World Cup, Bundesliga, MLB weekly Showcase games, Notre Dame (US College) football, Olympics (demonstrations), PGA Masters
  • Arts & Culture: Vienna Opera ballet “Le Corsaire”, Madrid Teatro Real Parsifal Opera, J-pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (8K trial)

Many of these events were delivered as one-time experiences. In Pay TV systems, they are most commonly delivered as “applications” or one-time channels made available in the program guide.  However, a shift to live linear channels (which operate on a 24x7 basis) has begun. Many operators with early experiences in launching these UltraHD services have started to migrate from event-based UltraHD programming to ongoing UltraHD programing. Some operators are broadcasting a single channel, driving consumption around a few sports leagues, and filling in the additional hours with some premium licensed movies, licensed UltraHD demo content, or a combination of the two. Other operators are jumping straight into two channels, one that is sports-oriented and the second being movie-oriented.

Some live, linear 4K/UltraHD channels include:

  • Europe: BT Sport Ultra HD, Sky Sport Bundesliga UHD (Sky Germany), Sky Sport UHD (Sky Germany), VRT’s Sporza (KPN/Netherlands)
  • Asia: SKY PerfecTV! 4K Experience (JSAT/Japan), U-max (Korea), KT (Korea), SK Broadband (Korea)
  • North America: DirecTV in 4K, SES Fashion One 4K, SES NASA TV UHD, SES High 4K TV

Over the Top (OTT) services have been early to UltraHD primarily with dramatic and cinematic video-on-demand (VOD) content; increasingly, they are augmenting their platforms to support live UltraHD video and looking for opportunities to showcase their platform capabilities. YouTube announced in late November that its platform fully supported 4K live streaming, and Amazon’s AWS launched Video Direct, and provides 4K streaming services to a variety of publishers, including major league baseball (via BAMTech). Amazon has tapped into its Elemental acquisition to support 4K live workflows.

From the Pay TV side, today, operators are not charging directly for UltraHD (4K) content, but there are clear benefits.  UltraHD content is only available to consumers in the highest technology and programming tiers–increasing ARPU. Indeed, the best argument to separate the UltraHD Sports and Movie channels, rather than dividing the programming by time, is to ensure that subscribers interested in UHD subscribe to both the premium Sports and Movie tiers! Assuming that UltraHD customers wouldn’t change services to an alternative without UltraHD programming, UltraHD customers will have fewer choices in alternative programming, especially where operators can leverage exclusive content. This leads to reduced churn in the subscriber base.  

From an infrastructure perspective, most operators continue to prefer software based video encoders for their 4K channels. Many operators are carefully eyeing the development of the DVB Ultra HD Phase 2 specification (just approved in mid-November 2016) and the ATSC 3.0 standards, which are nearing approval. The addition of elements such as High Dynamic Range (HDR) color, format issues such as 8 versus 10 bits of color.  Ericsson (based on the Envivio products), Ateme and Elemental have been some of the vendors driving UltraHD deployments; However, Harmonic has been somewhat quiet. Ericsson has had some focus on contribution (BT Sport), supports KT SkyLife UltraHD, Telefónica Vivo, and some others. Ateme has supported a number of French and European demonstrations, RTVE, French distribution of a European football tournament, a football match demonstration for TV Azteca, Brazilian Turner Esporte Interative (contribution) and Eurovision (contribution).  Harmonic supports Claro Chile (America Movil), AsiaSat 4K (based in Hong Kong), SES’s demonstration channels and engaged with NASA on a variety of UltraHD demonstration and production (as well as VR). Elemental is public with a large number of broadcasters, including Globosat, Net Brazil, BT, KT, SK Broadband, Tata Sky and DirecTV. 

All in all, the penetration of UltraHD panels is strong enough to justify launching services. North America will surge from 16% at the end of 2016 to nearly 30% at the end of 2017 and over 60% by the end of 2020. Western Europe lags North America by about 6 months in terms of adoption, while Asia has pockets of stronger and pockets of weaker adoption. Operators should be looking at acquiring content rights and structuring their packages to increase ARPU and decrease churn among the highest end consumers within a market.

ABI Research estimates that there are approximately 50 live services worldwide at the end of 2016 including:

  • About 4 broadcast internationally, primarily through SES with 3 to 5 regional satellites
  • About 24 services in Europe and the Middle East (18 of which are Western Europe)
  • About 6 services in North America
  • About 10 services in Asia