BBC wins world cup for pioneering UHD HDR live streaming

The BBC’s live streaming of the FIFA World Cup in UHD and HDR is a case of believe the hype. Certainly, the vast majority of content whether online or over conventional transmission networks still reaches our screens in high definition and for many people that will remain the benchmark for some time yet. But the BBC has cracked open the possibilities of end to end live streamed ultra-resolution high dynamic range content and signalled the future in a landmark public trial.

Streaming UHD /HDR
Streaming UHD /HDR

Ground is being broken almost daily. Netflix, which has led digital first SVOD giants into originating 4K drama, is testing consumer appetite in Europe for paying for UHD HDR video on demand over up to four screens (it currently offers a HD HDR version of same for Euros14).

The BBC itself has extended its exploration by live streaming coverage of the Wimbledon tennis championships over iPlayer in UHD HDR and you can bet that as more high profile live events arrive they too will get the 4K video over internet treatment regardless of broadcaster or streaming platform.

The BBC’s approach is instructive since not even pay TV operator BT Sport was carrying a UHD HDR signal for its Champions League final coverage earlier this year, although it did so when the host broadcast of the event from Cardiff in 2017 was under its control.

As a public service broadcaster, the BBC has an obligation to reach the widest audience possible and not cut viewers out of services as technology advances. True, the full fat stream from Russia is limited to viewers with at least a 40Mbps connection (and assumes no other WiFi devices are used simultaneously in the home) and even then the bandwidth capacity is such that just a few thousand lucky households would have been able to celebrate England’s record breaking win over Panama in all its visual glory.

[This match attracted 83% of viewing to BBC One with 2.8m live stream requests across BBC online. England’s penalty win over Colombia was aired on ITV which is not transmitting UHD].

It’s one of a series of trials during which BBC R&D teams have managed to find a way to convert the HDR broadcast from FIFA into a Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG) output for iPlayer. Viewers with an HDR TV are able to watch the world cup matches in superb UHD HDR, as well as in HD.

A joint partnership between the BBC and NHK over the last few years has led to the release of HLG (or Hybrid Log Gamma). This form of HDR is royalty free and is essentially backwards compatible with non-HDR UHD TV sets. Notably, the BBC’s unilateral presentation around the football tournament is delivered directly in UHD HDR – HLG; as is its online test live from Wimbledon.

Another reason why the bit rate is so high is that the BBC footage is running at 50 frames per second, deemed important for improved visual quality of live sports (and near essential if you are streaming esports, where 120p is arguably the target).

The BBC’s stated goal to become an internet broadcaster and trials like this not only help it learn how to make that transition and how to guarantee universal service over IP, it also pegs the broadcaster’s intent in the public consciousness.

The impact of video on demand is apparent and beyond dispute, but that is only the beginning as more and more live content makes its way onto IP and OTT.

“We believe the day all media is distributed over the internet are not too far away,” said the corporation’s CTO, Matthew Postgate, at this year’s DTG Summit. “For the internet to be an effective distribution network everybody in the country needs access without exception.

However, he warned both audiences and the industry that the IP future “comes with no guarantees and is up for grabs”.

He added, “Attributes of quality and universality associated with broadcasting need to be carried into the digital age and should be amplified by the creative potential of the internet.”

The BBC is to be applauded for leading the charge where not even Netflix has yet trod.

Posted by Adrian Pennington, technology journalist. July 11, 2018.