BBC UHD Channel

The BBC is expected to start broadcasting in UHD with long-form coverage of the 2017 Wimbledon Tennis Championships. The BBC – usually with help from Sony – has trialled 4K at the All England Club since 2013. Last year, Wimbledon’s Number 1 Court saw tests and closed-circuit transmissions of 8K managed by Japan’s NHK public broadcaster.

NHK is already working with the BBC on its jointly-developed Hybrid Log-Gamma (HLG) technology which is backward compatible with today’s normal Standard Dynamic Range displays.

The BBC has also tested 4K workflow processes since 2014, as well as various data compression technologies, in readiness for transmission to begin.

The BBC, as part of its relationship with commercial arm BBC Worldwide, has been producing 4K programming for many years. This content usually comes from the BBC’s Natural History Unit in Bristol and mainly comprises quite stunning factual programming shot in – at least – 4K and High Dynamic Range (HDR).

Since the BBC in the UK operates using public money, it must be much more cautious than its rivals.  The BBC cannot justify spending a lot of money on a technology that the British public do not currently use and which current infrastructure and hardware does not support.

Any new UHD service from the BBC will almost certainly be restricted to satellite transmissions (Sky and Freesat). It seems doubtful that there will be much capacity on Freeview for BBC UHD, hat said, the BBC is committed to ‘Platform Neutrality’.


BBC backing Ultra HD, HDR

Andy Quested, the BBC’s HD & UHD Head of Technology, told delegates at the SES Ultra-HD conference in London that the broadcaster was fully behind UHD and the ‘Rec 2020’ standard which allows for High Dynamic Range images. “Everything we do today has to stand the test of time. Planet Earth 1, made some 11 years ago, is still being watched and is still selling. We are investing in the very best images that can be generated, and also paying considerable attention to audio which is the cherry on the top.”

He explained how important it was that a single standard was employed so as not to disenfranchise existing viewers, and to avoid having to create multiple streams of video for those viewers.
The BBC is behind its Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG) transmission system, developed jointly by the BBC and NHK of Japan.

“All future commissions will be made in HLG (and PQ [Perceptual Quantiser] if needed by a co-production partner or overseas broadcaster) because we are an international broadcaster,” he added.

He noted that a lot of programmes are now made by independent production companies, including the new BBC Studios. “As far as independent production houses are concerned, their archive is their long-term pension! They also want to produce in the highest-possible standard. So we are seeing more and more UHD productions underway. Many are utilising high-quality cameras, but storing the rushes because the client doesn’t need UHD today. But they can go back to them later if there’s a market. I am confident that you will see more UHD especially in high-end drama and episodic series, provided we have the budget.”

Quested said that despite pressures – not least from the TV retail sector – there was not a single UHD channel available in the UK. I can watch UHD on Sky, but that is not a traditional linear channel. I could describe it as a ‘live on demand’ service. This is a great way of doing it because it helps with bandwidth demand. Once Sky gets its act together on HDR, then everyone can see the trials we have done via the BBC’s iPlayer and seen on a much greater range of displays.

I would say that one of the reasons we have invested in Natural History productions [in UHD] is because we are good at it. But there are also some high-end dramas and drama series which should be available as many of them are potentially UHD.
I am sure Sherlock has been shot on suitable cameras, same with Happy Valley, and there are others. Once there is a revenue stream it is going to happen. The next few years will be a mixed environment. There will be HD with HDR, UHD with HDR and there might even be some 8K floating around eventually. But there will not be a single, fixed service, the way we work today. It is all about the value of the programme, the longevity of the programme and it is common sense that where there’s a value [in adopting the technology] it will be used.”


Ultra HD trial content on BBC iPlayer

You may have noticed that the BBC is trialling some UHD content within BBC iPlayer. We are still evaluating future plans and this is an exercise that will help inform those decisions.

Why doesn’t this content work on my UHD TV?
There are a number of reasons that this UHD content may not be compatible with all UHD TVs.

Firstly, the device may not support the encoding format the BBC is using at this time. This area is currently still becoming standardised and there is potential for TV manufacturers to update devices to make use of this format.

Secondly, UHD requires around 20Mb/s in internet bandwidth due to its high quality. This level of internet service is only available in certain areas of the UK.

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