At last year’s key global broadcast trade shows, 4K/Ultra HD was in abundance but certainly no huge topic of conversation. Even though there has been a large uptake of sets capable of receiving and playing out 4K/Ultra HD content, the number of services across the world remains stubbornly low. Joseph O’Halloran looks at Insight TV, one service that is bucking this trend.
The numbers don’t lie: it’s looking very good for 4K/Ultra HD. Research from Strategy Analytics at the end of 2018 calculated that 222 million global homes owned an Ultra HD TV by the end of 2018, an increase of nearly 50% over the previous 12 months.
Furthermore, and showing exactly how strong the demand for such technology would be going forward, it forecast that more than 600 million homes will own an Ultra HD TV by 2023, with North America continuing to lead in terms of adoption with 71% of homes set to own one by 2023. A similar tracking report by Futuresource Consulting has found that as 2018 drew to a close, consumer interest in Ultra HD continued to climb, receiving a further push due to average retail prices reaching parity with HDTV sets.
Sounds good? Well certainly in terms of the number of devices in homes. Yet when one considers the number of Ultra HD services in use right now, and indeed going forward to 2023, it is a different story. There just aren’t that many and despite 2018 having a World Cup to kick off demand, growth in service numbers has plateaued. And what makes this even more curious is the amount of content now filmed using 4K cameras. The recent Superbowl LIII was a prime example with rights holder CBS shooting the landmark event in 4K but not broadcasting in that form.
So what is going on? The good news is that there are actually some service providers doing rather well right now. Let us give you some Insight.
Addressing one of the key 4K-specific events of the TV conference calendar in November 2018, Kagan senior analyst Mohammed Hamza told an audience of industry professionals that not only was the 4K device ecosystem growing fast but that ultimately the debate around the viability of 4KTV screens was no longer an issue; instead the industry would plough its own path according to what people could watch. He said: “The consumer acceptance is there... The competitive environment has changed: the development path for 4K is not the same as that of HD before it. Online platforms and streaming growth offer a significant contribution. The key discussion centres on content, an issue that will persist as consumers and platforms transition.”
The transition, and why everything now centres on content, was also covered by Futuresource, which noted that broadcast Ultra HD had enjoyed a strong 2018, with February’s Winter Olympics and the FIFA World Cup accelerating many broadcasters’ plans to introduce 4K Ultra HD coverage, making high quality streams available. But as things stand now in this non-sporting year, plans have not translated into mass service deployment.
Indeed, Futuresource highlighted subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) as the likely primary gateway for consumers to access Ultra HD content, with Netflix in particular driving spend. The survey found that some 20–30% of subscribers have opted for the SVOD leader’s Ultra HD premium tier. However, Futuresource cautioned that for wider uptake, a reduction in the cost to deliver Ultra HD and HD broadcasts simultaneously was needed. It regarded IP delivery would be key to this, at least in the short to medium term.
But there are firms already doing well in Ultra HD content, one of which has been Insight TV. The 4K Ultra HD HDR broadcaster and producer of native Ultra HD content has announced a number of shows crossing several genres over the last 12 months including Travel With a Goat, Road to Gymkhana GRiD, King of the Hammers, THRU, Breaking Limits, and DarkFEST.
And in addition to content launches there have been numerous carriage deals with leading cable operators and telcos.
So where and how has Insight TV seen the Ultra HD industry develop over the last year? “We saw growth over the last 12 months and growth in [all parts] of the business,” noted Arun Maljaars, director of content and channels.
“We grew our side of distribution on 4K channels, which sell the main products of premium content 4K for a broadcast fee. We also have our HD channel, which has also grown. We’ve just launched [with US cable operator] RCN in 4K. We’re doing deals with Samsung TV Plus and LG channels digital stream there as well. So in terms of uptake it’s really growing and you see the demand for 4K, you know, growing month by month. Also, from the content side, because [in addition to] our 4K channel and our HD channel we’re doing content sales partnerships and you see the demand in [uptake for] 4K content in our specifications, which is 50 frames HDR. [It is] is really rising.”
But surely there’s more to driving the uptake of content than having technologically sound, high quality content. What is it that makes a 4K programme worth watching? Maljaars stressed that it is all about telling the story. “With [some] other 4K channels sometimes you get only the visuals but what we deal with, we look at the creative side first. So it shows to be an interesting [story], regardless if it’s SD, 4K or whatever it will be. So after we’ve said all that, we take the right concept, we take the right talents and then we add in the 4K. So [we focus on] where we go, are we going to shoot it, how are we going to shoot it, adding that aspect to the programming. So we get really interesting programming [in what we do with] 4K.”
Over the last few months, Insight TV has expanded from its home territory of Europe and reached out in the US and China. Each market has its own challenges but Maljaars believes that there are a lot of commonalities.
“In the end we think we make the best shows in the higher specifications and we’re always a front runner both in creative and in technical. So we do like to see our channel carry across the world,” he remarked. “But maybe there are more similarities than you would think between China and the US. Not in terms of doing business, maybe – that is different – but in terms of consumers watching it. We see interest in the same titles in China as the US and of course [there are local] features there as well. So that’s a thing we’re working on, but there are a lot of similarities rather than differences.”
But if that is the case with individual territories, what is the situation with the different types of companies such as cablecos and telcos that Insight TV is increasingly doing business with? How does Insight gain a business edge when a lot of the production technology is commoditised? The key focuses for the company are 4K aspect and frame rate, which for Insight is in the range of 50–60fps. Plus HDR. And naturally the thorny issue of standards arises.
Maljaars revealed that Insight TV has a working partnership with Technicolor regarding HDR. It also recognises the role played by Dolby Vision in the ecosystem and HDR10+, the standard from Samsung and Amazon. “I’m not saying one is better than the other, but I think it’s a smart move from Amazon and Samsung to take the HDR10+ standard, which is free for everyone,” Maljaars noted.
“Hollywood productions will be using Dolby Vision probably because they have the funds. But for the TV producers and the channels just below that segment it is [important to work with] Dolby Vision and also Technicolor. So we’re experimenting [with it.]”
The key sales target for Insight TV content has been cable operators and telcos which are looking at 4K services to gain a differentiator among customers in the 25-35 age range. Yet increasingly Insight TV is involved in the streaming world with the likes of Roku and Samsung Plus online service. Maljaars sees such companies’ business models as interesting from a return point of view. What could be even more interesting for Insight TV is if its content is increasingly delivered via a streaming app rather than as part of a traditional cable or telco pay-TV operator’s bouquet.
“Well, I wouldn’t say it doesn’t cannibalise each other,” says Maljaars. “At least we share from our point of view. The telcos might think different about that, of course. But definitely you see the digital; players challenging the status quo. But at the same time everyone’s working together. So you see Roku apps on the various broadband telco devices. There’s a new service out there and everyone needs to think about how we’re dealing with it and how we all can benefit from it. So it’s interesting to see how that develops, but it doesn’t take business away from the telcos for us right now.”
So just what is likely to happen with 4K development? Maljaars made the bold prediction that maybe within five years almost all channels will be broadcast in 4K in some regard. This he believes will bring about a point at which content will separate Insight TV from the rest.
“That’s why we’re looking at focusing on the storytelling itself more rather than the technical part first,” he explains, “and because we’re focussing on all the millennials between 25 and 35 we’re growing with them. So everything: the subjects, the shows they are interested in – we’re growing naturally with them. When they are 40 or so they will know Insight and they will accept [our content], so it will be a standard that will still exist. I think that next year there will be even more 4K [in the] market than last year because all the operators are bringing out 4K boxes, and it becomes more of a standard and for me, personally, or for Insight TV, the buyers, or the acquisition managers, directors, they need to do more in my opinion towards what kind of content they are buying. You know, is it interesting for the consumers? Is it real storytelling stuff, which you are going to offer to the consumers, and secondly, is it real 4K HDR?”
Standards aside, there’s a lot of heft to HDR and its adoption by the mainstream consumer electronics industry. The standards battle is obscuring the fact that whatever format wins, HDR will win overall.
The other current future technology with a less clear future is 8KTV. This technology is receiving a huge push as the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020 approaches. Yet as 4K adoption is painfully slow, it will likely be near glacial for 8K. That said, Insight TV’s development team is involved in the technology and made its first 8K HDR production during the summer of 2018 and Maljaars adds that it was currently shooting more 8K HDR material in current productions in order to make its content future proof.
Knowing exactly what this future to be proofed against is hugely difficult to predict. One thing that is less speculative is that there will be more and more 4K Ultra HD sets out there and that Insight TV will be cranking up the production engine to make sure that for Ultra HD applications they are not all dressed up with nowhere to go.