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Sports see 4K boost despite standards, distribution concerns

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Sports see 4K boost despite standards, distribution concerns

Sporting events are increasingly being shot in 4K Ultra HD in the U.S. and around the globe.

Yet, even as more contests will be produced in 2017, widespread adoption of the format, which features 4x the number of pixels of traditional HD, is being limited by a lack of distribution, as well as missing standards for the technology, according to executives at the recent Sports Video Group Summit in New York.

Michael Davies, senior vice president of technical and field operations at 21st Century Fox Inc.'s FOX Sports, said that until more affiliates commit to offering programming in the enhanced format, the programmer is not taking a similarly aggressive approach like it did with HD.

Even as manufacturers continue to roll out 4K sets, "We really don't have production standards," said Tom Sahara, vice president of operations and technology at Time Warner Inc.'s Turner Sports. Sahara hopes something will be voted on and adopted in 2017 and that will lead to more momentum.

"We have the cart before the horse now with the displays," he said. "Once we catch up, you will see the business behind it."

Still, 4K continued to make strides in sports in 2016.

Ken Aagaard, executive vice president of innovation and new technology at CBS Corp.'s CBS Sports, said 4K was in the huddle at Super Bowl 50, as a specialty camera from Sony Corp. helped the broadcast network capture one of the defining moments of the NFL championship game: the replay showing Denver linebacker Von Miller strip-sacking Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.

Aagaard noted the Super Bowl provides "a great platform to work on new technology that eventually comes into mainstream."

Other leagues have also made more 4K waves this year. Teaming with Game Creek Video, MLB Network (US) presented its Showcase games in 4K to subscribers of AT&T Inc.'s DIRECTV. Susan Stone, senior vice president of operations and engineering at MLB Network, said a determination has yet to be made for the 2017 season about whether the Showcase telecasts will "stay more traditional" with 4K, or be presented in 4K high-dynamic range. High dynamic range provides more vivid colors by offering a higher level of contrast. The resultant images are more realistic and accentuate color hues.

North of the border, Mary Ellen Carlyle, senior vice president and general of Dome Productions, said 4K became "proof of concept" in 2016, with the production company working on more than 200 events in the format, including Toronto Blue Jays baseball games, as well as NBA, NHL and MLS action.

Carlyle said Dome will continue to branch out in 2017, moving mobile production westward. "We stayed in eastern Canada," she said, noting the company needs to do Vancouver Canucks NHL games in the format and pursue more Canadian Football League contests.

Barry Johnstone, managing director of CTV Outside Broadcasts, said that across the pond, 4K has seen a boost with the U.K.'s top soccer circuit. He said British Telecom has been transitioning its programming to 4K, while Sky plc is also distributing all Premier League matches in the format, as well as cricket and boxing. Johnstone said things have moved past the "experimentation stage," adding that all contract renewals cover 4K production.

Back in the U.S., Game Creek President Pat Sullivan noted that since 2010 all of the trucks the company has built have been 4K capable. New units are rolling toward use by the drag racing group NHRA and regional sports networks MSG Network (US), Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (US) and YES Network (US). The truck for the latter, he said, will also assist FOX Sports, which owns 80% of the New York Yankees-centric network, with its World Series telecasts over the next several years.

"They are all built with 4K in mind," said Sullivan.