EXCLUSIVE: SES Ultra HD Conference 2019 review (part 1)

Hidden depths

The ultra HD supply chain came together at this year’s SES Ultra HD Conference at the techUK offices in London to discuss the market, content availability and the challenges of educating consumers…

According to IHS Market Research, in the last quarter of 2018, nearly two thirds of TVs shipped in Europe were of 4K resolution.

“This is a tremendous figure, but there is still a long way to go,” said Mike Chandler, MD of satellite operator, SES Astra GB. “We are in the golden era of content right now, because the variety and quality of the programming on offer, but 4K can push that even further.

“Today we will scrutinise the developments with an array of experts and discuss standards in terms of production and post- production, as well as compression technology, transmission and right through to the all-important retail.”

‘There should be more 4K TV sales’, reports GfK

According to the latest GfK data, presented by Nick Simon, Account Director at GfK: “In 2018, a lot of CE sales were down to the first half strong uplift in TVs as the World Cup was approaching. Since August and September last year, or even since the last SES Conference, things have been quite tough.

“We get to November 2018, we’re in negative figures, and you know Black Friday hasn’t worked. Get to December, still negative figures. Having said that, at the start of this year up until April, it’s not been that bad. So somebody, somewhere, is investing.

“The TV market has been growing, albeit rather slowly, so far this year; it’s just about at turnover level. Even 4K is still only up 15 per cent as opposed to 115 per cent when it was first around in the market.”

In terms of units sold, the HD television market was up seven per cent in the UK for the first four months of this year, while there were declines elsewhere across Europe. Mr Simon added that five million units in the UK is “the new norm”. “It doesn’t look as though that’s going to change very much; the value of the market seems to be fixed.

“Why hasn’t everyone bought a 4K TV yet?” he asked. “For some reason there’s UHD Ready, occupying 30 per cent of the market since 2014 and gradually declining. Yet still people are trundling out lots of UHD Ready TVs, and suffice to say the people doing UHD Ready are not the more sophisticated retailers or not necessarily sophisticated manufacturers.”

4K televisions are currently selling in “even figures” and there are many more sales across the industry now, but Mr Simon said he feels that there could be more and there should be more.

“We used to sell more 4K TVs than anywhere else in Europe, but now the UK is second in market share in Europe, just behind Germany, which is at 58 per cent. It’s not an absolute disaster and at some point everyone will have to buy 4K.

“In terms of 8K – it is happening; it’s something that I’m really looking forward to presenting this time next year. We want to see this happen.”

“There is definitely now more 4K content…”

This was view of Liz McParland, Commercial Director/Contribution, Globecast. Reflecting back to 2002 and the World Cup that year, there was only a small amount of coverage broadcast in HD, she said. Then the 2006 World Cup was fully produced in HD. 13 years on, looking back at the World Cup last year and all the matches were provided in UHD.

“There’s just more UHD content available now and when it’s there, people want it,” commented Ms McParland. “The technology is moving on, which allows us to transmit it much more effectively and much more cost effectively.”

When asked what broadcast clients are asking for nowadays, she said, agreeing with her fellow panellists, that the most requested content is live sports content.

In addition, coverage of last year’s wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle was delivered in UHD 4K for the first time. “That’s our only example of covering news events so far. But entertainment shows is also a primary requirement.”

“We are currently very happy with 4K”

The first of the day’s Keynote Addresses came from Phil Layton, Head of Broadcast and Connected Systems, BBC R&D.

“At the BBC, UHD for us means three things. High resolution – it’s great to have the extra resolution but we don’t believe that actually drives people to certain TV programmes. Second is wide colour gamut – we want to see more and more colours coming through, that’s really important. Third, High Dynamic Range (HDR) – the contrast, the better visibility in the light and darks.”

In addition, Mr Layton reported that BBC research found that at home people sit about the same distance from the TV as they have always done, which is about two and half metres. He said this means, for most people, 4K works well on screens around 55 inches.

“For that alone, we don’t believe, as a distributor mechanism, that we need more pixels,” he added. “There are good arguments around what’s in the panel, and we are currently very happy with 4K.”

Mr Layton spoke about some of the projects he has been involved in, such as coverage of the Royal Wedding last year. “We had our Director General in recently; we showed him some of the pictures we got, and we couldn’t tear him away. He was completely immersed.”

“The quality of the pictures came out really well. It was a large production; we had two broadcast trucks and one presentation truck. We captured it in UHD, and this included 72 normal cameras plus four cameras working on UHD. 1.9 billion people enjoyed HD/HDR viewing that day.”

More and more content

The second Keynote Address of the day was presented by Sky UK’s Chief Engineer, Broadcast Strategy, Chris Johns. He began by pointing out the uptake year-on-year of content growth, with platforms like Sky and Netflix producing more and more content.

He also reported that Sky has recently made the commitment to double the amount of investment in commissioning 4K programmes. He referred to the running theme of Sky’s own programme, Riviera, being pin-pointed by several speakers throughout the Conference and used as a prime example of top-quality content that was filmed and broadcast in UHD.

Mr Johns then recalled the success of HD, saying: “When we moved from SD to HD it was a jump in picture quality, and you could see a real difference. At the same time there was a screen evolution as we moved from the big TV boxes and went to flat screens. It seems like a long time ago now but it was only 2006 when this started coming together.

“Conversely, UHD was very quick off the mark and the CE industry started losing while this was being pushed initially.”

He noted a rough timeline of developments from across the years. Sky launched its multiple channels in 1989. In 1998, television went digital. Around eight years later, HD launched and then in 2016 UHD channels came in. There are roughly eight to 10 years between new developments coming through.