After shuttering ESPN3D, the cable TV sports giant is looking ahead to the next potential development in television broadcasting, 4K TV, also known as Ultra HD.
ESPN’s top tech exec, Chuck Pagano (not to be confused with the Indianapolis Colts head coach of the same name) said the company is preparing for developments in 4K TV, but after the failure of the 3D experiment, they are not going to hurry without fully taking into account how many customers will actually be using it.
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He said many components that will make up the underlying 4K production system, including switchers and graphics engines, are still in development. Vendors are telling Pagano not to expect many of those pieces to be available in desired quantifies until 2015.
“Right now I have too many cogs between the two ends of this ecosystem. I’ve got a camera and I’ve got a TV set,” he said. “There’s still a lot of things to figure out before we can say we’re going to be playing in this space or not yet. We’re actively looking [at 4K], but I can’t tell you I have a date in mind.”
Pagano, who was inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame last year, is likewise not convinced that consumers will notice or appreciate the difference between 4K and regular HDTV unless they’re viewing it on massive displays. He and his colleagues have studied HDTV and 4K images side-by-side on a 55-inch screen and “scratched their heads,” because there’s not a huge difference. If consumers can afford a 100-inch screen and squeeze it into their houses, then that’s something else.
“But we’re just getting our fingers a little with dirty with trying to understand the mechanics,” he said.
And it’s not just about screen size. Those TVs will also need to support higher frame rates to get a fuller experience. Most TVs use an HDMI 1.4b-complaint interface that supports up to 24 frames per second. While that works fine for film, live television will likely need to support a minimum of 60 frames per second – a function that should be supported in the emerging 2.0 version of HDMI.
“It’s still confusing on where that’s going to go,” Pagano said. Likewise, he said H.265/High Efficiency Video Coding [HEVC], a codec that is 50% more efficient than H.264/MPEG-4 will be a “key ingredient if we decide at some point to go with 4K.”
One thing is for sure: for 4K to work with a broader group, ESPN will need to embrace it. If the sports giant does not, or goes with another technology, 4K will be dead in the water.