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4K/UHD: Great to have but broadcasters in APAC yet to see any meaningful ROI

By Shaun Lim

Walk into any major appliance store in Singapore and you are likely to be dazzled by top-of-the-range TV sets enabled to screen pristine 4K/Ultra HD (UHD) quality content. 

For tech-savvy consumers who know a thing or two about pixel count, the purchase of the 4K/UHD TV set is likely to end in disappointment, unless they are satisfied with consuming limited native 4K content on platforms such as Netflix and Disney+.

At the end of the spectrum, can non-tech savvy audiences really differentiate between HD and 4K/UHD content, at a time when 4K/UHD content on digital terrestrial television (DTT) networks is practically unheard of in the Asia-Pacific region?

After all, it is only in the last decade that many countries in the Asia-Pacific region have completed their analogue switch-off. For many broadcasters, the transition to DTT was not an easy one, and was fraught with challenges and missteps along the way.

Speaking to APB+, Dr Ahmad Zaki Mohd Salleh, Director of Technical Operations, Media Prima, reflected, “During the transition from SD to HD, everyone was doing it late and, being late, gave us the feeling of being left behind. Also, the difference in video quality between SD and HD was very apparent.

“In fact, there were even cases where programmes got better ratings due to being in HD.”

4K/UHD, on the other hand, can be seen as a complement to HD, especially for high-profile, live sports programmes, which create the ‘being-in-the-stadium’ effect when broadcast in 4K/UHD, said Dr Zaki. 

“Ardent sports fans would like to be able to see the facial expressions of their favourite football stars when they miss their shots or when they falter on the field of play. Coupled with slow-motion systems, 4K does give viewers a tremendous viewing experience,” he added.

Where equipment is concerned, most production equipment sold today is 4K/UHD-ready, and does not require additional planning or special budgets to be set aside. “Most of our old  equipment will be replaced with 4K-ready equipment and once the collection of 4K equipment begins to pile up in our equipment storage, most productions will end up being completed in 4K.

“This also applies to other facilities such as post-production, non-linear editing machines,” said Dr Zaki.

These factors, he suggested, should make the transition from HD to 4K/UHD a less painful one than the transition from SD to HD. Why then are broadcasters, particularly those in the Asia-Pacific region, so non-committal to 4K/UHD? 

Even for a seemingly attractive proposition like live sports, only Astro is transmitting live sporting events in Malaysia. It boils down to transmission costs and capabilities, opined Dr Zaki, who continued, “When we are talking about DTT, Malaysia adopted a common infrastructure model and the distribution and transmission is being managed by MYTV Broadcasting (MYTV), who are not currently offering 4K on its DTT service.

“Even if they do so, I don’t think broadcasters would be able to afford transmission of their content in 4K as the bandwidth requirements will be much higher in comparison to HD or SD.  

“As it stands, most broadcasters are still negotiating for further reduction in the current rates offered by MYTV and I do not see 4K on Malaysia’s DTT platform any time soon, as the commercial terms are still unfavourable to broadcasters.”

He, however, does not dismiss the possibility of Media Prima making the transition to 4K, especially when the time comes to upgrade existing infrastructure. When that happens, Dr Zaki is anticipating an easier time, or at least when it comes to upscaling content.

He explained, “During the SD to HD migration, the aspect ratio issues are tricker compared to resolution changes. I remember the anamorphic changes from 4:3 to 16:9 was a nightmare, and we received complaints from viewers who were watching ‘letter-box’ images on their 16-inch analogue TV sets!

“The good thing about 4K is that, up converting HD material to 4K will not involve aspect ratio changes and I feel that the changes in perceivable quality difference in HD and 4K is less obvious, compared to SD and HD.”

4K/UHD stuck in the slow lane in APAC?

Due to lacklustre demand and high deployment costs, 4K would continue to lag behind and would only gain traction as part of video-on-demand (VoD) in the over-the-top (OTT) world, predicted Fintan McKiernan, CEO, Ideal Systems, South East Asia, when APB+ spoke to him a few months ago about the outlook for South-east Asia broadcast and media industry in 2023.

It is a stance he has not changed since, as he told APB+, “Soft consumer demand, set-top box (STB) replacement costs for pay-TV operators, and increased cost of broadcast infrastructure for 4K are still holding things back.”

For DTT operators to take advantage of 4K/UHD, they need to work with TV manufacturers and TV retailers to improve public communication and awareness of how to receive DTT in 4K/UHD.

McKiernan explained, “In general, the industry is very fragmented. TV manufacturers bundle some canned 4K content on new TV sets to display in shops, but TV retailers are doing a poor job of letting the consumer know how to get 4K content.

“Moreover, aside from movies and VoD, there is very little live 4K content available in South-east Asia, with most news, sports and entertainment channels still broadcasting in HD.”

Sports will continue to be the key driver for 4K/UHD, especially when the content is delivered on large screens for international audiences, said Paul Maroni, Group Sales and Marketing Manager, Magna Systems & Engineering.

He also sees potential for 4K/UHD in DTT because of standards such as DVB-T2 supporting HEVC/H.265, which allows for the transport of 4K/UHD signals at relatively low bandwidths. “Currently, while demand for 4K content is growing rapidly, delivery is mainly via streaming services,” Maroni added.

This demand, alongside new consumer TVs being natively 4K/UHD-capable, should encourage broadcasters to invest in 4K/UHD, or risk being left behind by early adopters, said Maroni. However, he acknowledged the challenges posed by 4K/UHD, including additional bandwidth requirements. 

He added, “Broadcasters looking to produce and deliver 4K content should be looking at a SMPTE ST 2110 IP infrastructure and acquiring the skills required to deliver and support this IP infrastructure, as compared to a traditional baseband infrastructure.”

While new broadcast production technologies such as the cloud and NDI – agnostic to content resolution – can produce content in HD and 4K/UHD on the same infrastructure and systems, it would appear the jury is still out whether 4K/UHD will really take off in the Asia-Pacific region.

McKiernan highlighted, “Most broadcasters are still set up for HD broadcast with legacy SDI infrastructure, aside from India, where there is a massive SD legacy.

“There is clearly a lot of investment required to upgrade to 4K. The cost of broadcasting in 4K needs to come down, public demand for 4K needs to increase, and the financial benefits of launching in 4K need to show a path to return on investment (ROI), the latter of which is hard to see at the moment.”

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