Rogers Enters Age of 4K/UHD With NHL Coverage

Its live 4K production of a Maple Leafs-Canadiens match will air today from Toronto

The 4K/UHD spotlight will be on NHL hockey Saturday with Rogers’s 4K production of the Toronto Maple Leafs-Montreal Canadiens matchup at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre (ACC). Although Rogers’s first live 4K sports broadcast (the first ever in North America, for that matter) took place last week when it teamed with the NBA and BT Sport to present a Toronto Raptors-Orlando Magic match at London’s O2 Arena, Sportsnet’s Hockey Night in Canada telecast today will be the first produced on Canadian soil.

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Last week’s NBA game and Saturday’s Leaf-Habs matchup kick off Sportsnet’s ambitious slate of live 4K coverage of more than 100 sports events in (20 NHL games and all 81 Toronto Blue Jays home games), which is the most of any network in North America and second only to the UK’s BT Sport globally. If all goes according to plan in the coming months, according to Scott Moore, president, Sportsnet and NHL properties, Rogers, live 4K sports coverage will continue to grow and could include this fall’s World Cup of Hockey in Toronto.

“We as a company identified that we were in a unique position to be able to leverage 4K because we are truly the most vertically integrated in sports media certainly in Canada and perhaps in North America,” he says. “We own the cable infrastructure in the largest city [Toronto], we own the baseball team, we have a long-term national-rights deal with the NHL, and we own the network. We knew we could utilize 4K not only to give our viewers a better viewing experience but to drive demand for 4K set-top boxes and for cable [subscriptions].”

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Side-by-Side for Now, But One-Truck Solution Is on the Way
Sportsnet will produce Saturday’s 4K show out of a separate mobile unit (Dome Productions’ Unite) from the HD production. However, this side-by-side production model is only temporary until Dome completes transformation of its Trillium mobile unit into a single truck (with a pair of B units) that can serve both the HD and 4K shows.

“The one-truck solution is absolutely essential,” says Moore. “You couldn’t possibly justify this on a day-in/day-out basis if you were doing side-by-side productions all the time. The side-by-side for the first 10 or so hockey games is a necessity to [launch] in time for first quarter of this year, when we wanted to be in market. But you couldn’t possibly envision every Blue Jays game having two sets of trucks, producers, and commentators. There is just no way you could monetize that.”

Dome Productions is set to roll another custom-built HD/4K dual-feed truck in July to serve the 4K needs of its 50-50 owners, Rogers and Bell Media (which produced its first live 4K sports telecast at Wednesday’s Raptors-Boston Celtics game at the ACC).

“There were two overriding philosophies that I asked our crew to take into account,” says Moore. “First, this could not, in any way, negatively impact the main HD broadcast. Second, it had to be financially responsible. That is why we won’t do side-by-sides for the Blue Jays and why we came up with this dual-path solution.”

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Sportsnet Senior Producer Sherali Najak (no stranger to bleeding-edge formats, having overseen CBC’s first 3D Hockey Night in Canada telecast, in 2010) will man the front bench in the truck for Saturday’s production and oversee future 4K productions for Sportsnet.

Pumping the Brakes on HDR
Although enthusiastic about the potential of sports in 4K/UHD, Sportsnet and production partner Dome face a number of technical hurdles, especially in lensing, replay and switcher capacity, and transmission. In addition, after initially announcing in October that it would present all 81 Blue Jays games in 4K with HDR, Sportsnet has since backed off the HDR plans, opting instead to wait for a true HDR broadcast standard to be agreed on.

“When you’re dealing with any nascent technology, you have to be prepared to amend your plans,” Moore explains. “We are pushing all the manufacturers to come to an agreement around a standard, and, as soon as that happens, we will move into HDR as quickly as possible. I would say that 4K is 20%-30% better than HD but, with HDR, is 50%-70% better than HD, so I’m excited about HDR. But, until someone can show me they can switch cameras and deliver the signal flow throughout the truck and to the consumer, we are not going to put our broadcasts in jeopardy over it.”

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Lessons Learned From BT Sport
Luckily for Moore and company, they aren’t the first sports broadcaster to dip a toe in the 4K waters: BT Sport has been delivering live 4K telecasts in the UK since July. In recent months, Sportsnet and Dome leaned heavily on BT Sport COO Jamie Hindhaugh and his team, soaking up as much 4K-produciton expertise as possible. Among the takeaways from BT were the absolute need for a dual-feed HD/4K single-truck model, the decision to upconvert HD robotic and specialty cameras to 4K, and the use of a single team of commentators for both the HD and the 4K telecasts.

“The Dome Productions folks and our engineers have spent a lot of time with our pals at BT Sport,” says Moore. “Their first few broadcasts were purist 4K, in which they only used 4K cameras and with different commentators. They ended up with a different look. Viewers’ feedback was that, while they loved the resolution and quality, they felt they were getting an inferior product production-wise. That played heavily into our decision to upconvert and use the same commentators.”

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A Marathon, Not a Sprint
It’s early days for both Rogers and Bell Media, which are endeavoring to drive interest in 4K via live sports content while also navigating a long list of technical challenges. Moore believes that one of Rogers’s key advantages lies in its extensive fiber network, which he says will prevent bandwidth slowdowns for subscribers or limitations on the number of 4K set-top boxes in the home since the 4K service will be delivered on separate lines from the Internet service.

In addition, though agreeing that the HD-to-4K transition has a long way to go, Moore believes that the rate of consumer adoption and technological advance will be much quicker than SD-to-HD.

“This is definitely a long-term play, but it’s very different than the SD-to-HD transition,” he says. “I saw my first HD broadcast at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, and it wasn’t until more than 10 years later that it started to become a real option for broadcasters and consumers. Fast-forward to September 2015, when I saw my first 4K demo — not even a 4K broadcast — and, within a month, we were announcing 300 live hours of 4K broadcasts. I think it will take far less than five years for 4K to become the de facto standard: two to three years max.”

Tonight’s 4K Hockey Night in Canada telecast produced by Sportsnet begins at 7 p.m. ET and is available to Rogers customers on NextBox 4K on channel 999.

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