NBCUniversal is milking its broadcast rights to the Winter Olympics for all they’re worth, spraying an unprecedented level of coverage of the 18-day event across TV, web and mobile in part to show that it’s on the vanguard of new technology.
The Peacock is even capturing some of the action from Sochi, Russia, using the latest in TV tech: 4K resolution, which offers a breathtakingly sharp picture with four times the pixels of 1080p HDTV. That is to include the opening ceremonies on Friday, Feb. 7.
But while the Sochi Olympics are a fantastic backdrop to showcase Ultra HD TV, promising to capture all the glittering snow and ice in fine detail, the distribution infrastructure simply isn’t there to support 4K broadcasts today. And, just as critical, only a small percentage of consumers even have UHD televisions.
“We’re shooting limited 4K content from Sochi and making it available for demonstration purposes only, not for consumer or commercial distribution,” NBC Sports VP of communications Chris McCloskey said.
Shooting in 4K is common in the biz. Many TV productions use digital cinema cameras like the RED Epic and Sony F55 to capture footage in at least 4K and some post houses finish at 4K and then down-convert them to make the broadcast master. The missing links are on the distribution side, and in the living room.
Consumer-electronics makers are champing at the bit to make 4K the next big thing. A rash of new Ultra HD televisions cropped up at the 2014 International CES, in tandem with new content-delivery pacts for 4K content to feed into those sets. Among those were Comcast, NBCU’s parent, which announced plans to roll out an app for Xfinity TV Samsung 4K TVs later this year that will provide access to on-demand 4K movies and TV shows.
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But neither Comcast or any other pay-TV distributor will be carrying these Winter Olympics in 4K. The satellite links needed to transport live TV don’t support 4K formats, while set-top boxes in the field don’t either. Comcast says it will upgrade its next-generation X1 boxes later in 2014 for 4K.
To see the Sochi games in dazzling Ultra HD, you will need to be lucky enough to be invited to a special showing. Comcast, for one, is staging three such viewing parties: in Washington, D.C. (Feb. 7), San Francisco (Feb. 12) and Philadelphia (Feb. 13). Those are invite-only events for media, partners, elected officials, employees and other guests, who will be treated to time-delayed 4K content shown on Samsung UHD sets.
“The industry isn’t really there yet in terms of TVs,” a Comcast rep said. “On the heels of the Samsung announcement at CES, we’re working to showcase where the future of TV is going.”
Comcast actually held a demo of 8K television technology in D.C. in 2012, for the London Summer Olympics — which is even farther out as a commercial reality than 4K. At 7680-by-4320 pixels, 8K provides 33.2 megapixels, or 16 times current 1080p HDTV resolution, and the benefits of that over 4K are probably lost on most people. For now, 4K remains on a slow ramp: In the U.S., just 57,000 Ultra HD 4K-compatible televisions were sold in 2013, according to a CEA projection, with sales projected to increase to 485,000 in 2014 and 1.25 million in 2015.
To record 4K video in Sochi, NBC is working with Panasonic and the vendor’s equipment along with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Sochi Olympic Organizing Committee and Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS).
David Cohen contributed to this report.