HDR In Live Production Slow To Take Off In The U.S.

Following a rash of 4K UHD products that hit the market two years ago, cameras with high dynamic range (HDR) capability also began to emerge as a less costly alternative to improving signal quality. Indeed, HDR had a strong showing at the 2017 CES, with different TV manufacturers pledging support for Dolby Vision (PQ) and Hybrid Log-Gamma (HLG) systems in addition to the baseline HDR10 standard.

Broadcasters and live production companies in the U.S. slowly began testing HDR+, a 10-bit 1080p HDR image with much lower bandwidth requirements than UHD, as a money-saving option. HDR, they said, showed promise as an efficient way to improve picture quality while utilizing the same 3 Gb/s infrastructure many had already deployed in studios and mobile production trucks.

There’s no denying the improvements realized with a native HDR ecosystem. Basically, the benefit of HDR is its ability to replicate the most realistic and natural viewing experience, that of human perception. While our eyes are fully equipped to see very wide ranges of brightness and color, until then, broadcast tools had not been able to relate that same experience to the viewer.

Extra Cost Spurs Lack Of Interest

Today, as we move towards the 2019 IBC Show in Amsterdam, HDR in live sports has not caught on as anticipated due to cost and deployment complexity. The HLG format has been more widely adopted as most consumer sets can natively display it, but the demand has far underwhelmed proponents that saw it as a panacea for live production prior to the move to IP infrastructures. Many agree that HDR—and also 4K UHD—is simply a matter of extra cost that most live sports and entertainment clients are not eager to commit to.

Grass Valley recommends a dual-production approach using automated down mapping as a cost-effective solution to HDR production.

Grass Valley recommends a dual-production approach using automated down mapping as a cost-effective solution to HDR production.

“Everyone needs to make judgments about what is going to bring the most value to their customers,” said Scott Rothenberg, senior vice president, Technology and Asset Management, at NEP U.S. “ For live production, 4K offers little advantage and currently requires some compromise in production capability. And it adds significant costs to the production. Conversely, 1080p HDR offers the viewer something more tangible with less compromise in production.”

In the U.S., NEP now maintains 17 HDR-capable trucks, although the only one that has done significant HDR work is its “ND6,” which has covered Notre Dame college football for NBC since 2018.

“Right now only a small percentage [of live projects] is 4K or HDR,” said Glen Levine, president at NEP U.S. “Mostly everything is being shot in HD. Events that are in 4K and HDR also have a HD output for distribution to the majority of homes. Some of this is cost to rebuild broadcast centers for the major networks. The second factor is distribution in the U.S. There are not a lot of companies moving 4K signals.”

Game Creek Video is another major live production company that has seen little interest in HDR beyond the series of “test” broadcasts they have helped produce for several sports TV networks. Although the conversations they are having with clients regarding HDR are increasing.

“The primary reason for this [lack of interest] is production resources,” said Pat Sullivan, president of Game Creek. “With 1080p/60 you can have the same production elements (particularly replay and Super SloMo) as you would in 1080i or 720p. In 4K you either lose some of those elements or you up convert 1080p/60 elements to 4K. To most viewers at home, the difference in 1080p/60 & 4K is minimal.”

Sullivan said that every truck his company has built since 2010 has a 3G infrastructure. This has allowed them to convert units for HDR more easily. The problem has been the extra cost of HDR capable production equipment like cameras, T&M scopes, video monitors and replay devices.

TNDV’s

TNDV’s "Elevation" is one of many in its fleet that focuses on HD projects exclusively.

Even mid-level production companies are seeing minimal interest in HDR. Nic Dugger, president of TNDV Television (which was recently acquired by Live Media Group), said that out of the 400 average yearly projects they help produce, the demand for HDR has historically been “less than 1 percent of bids sent.” Conversely, 1080p production requests, he said, are up 19 percent over the past two years.

“We have prepared and built-out for HD capabilities, so when selecting new hardware, this always comes into consideration,” he said. “Also, we have done a number of firmware upgrades to add HDR capabilities to our existing inventory.”

HDR Equipment Is Available

Broadcast equipment suppliers have also acknowledged that HDR has not caught on in the U.S. as many had expected, even while many of their products and systems can be upgraded to accommodate HDR if required. They say that all of the equipment for producing a native HDR show is now available, they’re just waiting for customers.

Grass Valley, for example, offers a special eLicensing program that enables an owner of one of its latest generation HD cameras (the LDX 86 series) to download software to enable full HDR acquisition. The company has worked on Formula One and Premiere League soccer telecast overseas and was involved in a few live sports tests in the U.S. last year, but the lack of demand in the U.S., where many are touting 1080p/60 as the best signal quality format before moving to 4K UHD (which requires a more costly 12 Gbps infrastructure).

Grass Valley’s LDK 86 Universe camera can produce native HDR images with an eLicense upgrade.

Grass Valley’s LDK 86 Universe camera can produce native HDR images with an eLicense upgrade.

“A lot of the projects we’ve been involved with have been with folks more interested in testing it out to validate that it will all work,” said Mark Hilton, vice president, live production products, Grass Valley. “That’s the biggest thing happening right now.”

Most HDR productions happening right now employ one of three strategies, depending upon the program’s eventual destination and budget. There’s the dual-production approach, which entails two separate trucks and crews on site and is very expensive. This is the ideal way to do it if you had all the money in the world.

The next method is to shoot it in HDR and then you do your shading for both HDR and SDR, which many crews are finding out is tricky to get all of the cameras to match. Typically, a shader will pick one format to favor and that usually means the SDR output.

A third, less costly approach is to have a hybrid HDR workflow, where you shoot in HDR, then you automatically down convert at the output for the predominate SDR TV audience. Some people have tested this approach, but a lot of times they lose some ability to control the overall look of the production.

“This is where a lot of the testing has been,” said Hilton. “The goal here is to mange the down mapping, and get an acceptable HDR and SDR output with a single production workflow. In the U.S. people are choosing 1080/60p as their preferred format because, although there have been several 4K tests, you can't distribute it easily to the home and its more expensive to produce. So, production company clients are asking for HD, not 4K. But we have seen some interest for 4k from many our customers who want to preserve their footage in the best possible resolution. The concern is getting the HDR signal all the way through to the end. We don't have that pipeline to consumers’ homes yet.”

Experience Is Critical

Sony also manufactures HDR capable cameras and, indeed, most of the HDR testing that has occurred in Europe has been with Sony cameras. That’s according to Rob Willox, Director of Product Marketing, Media Solutions, Sony Electronics. He stressed the need for the right equipment in order to get the improved picture results many desire. This goes beyond just cameras, switchers and other equipment.

The Sony XVS-9000 video switcher with an optional HDRC-4000 HDR production converter, can output a variety of video signals including HD/4K HDR.

The Sony XVS-9000 video switcher with an optional HDRC-4000 HDR production converter, can output a variety of video signals including HD/4K HDR.

“Proper codecs like Sony’s HDR Optimized 10 bit XAVC need to be employed for proper recording and rendition of the wide color and high dynamic range,” he said. “Also, true professional HDR monitors need to be available for the program, shading and conversion areas [or a production truck]. Different levels of monitor grades need to be available so the budget for monitoring does not skyrocket.”

Willox said experimenting with HDR workflows is the best way to figure out how to overcome the challenges of doing it right.

“The key is gaining the working knowledge of a HDR workflow, issues and best practices,” he said. “We need to train shaders, IEC’s and others on the adjustment of equipment. Making good TV is not easy. It takes a cargo jet full of equipment to do a golf remote in HD. HDR requires a commitment to imaging excellence and that requires time.”

The real culprit for the lack of interest in HDR ultimately comes down to the consumer, who at present does not know—and hasn't experienced—what a good HDR image looks like in their living rooms. Once consumer demand for the improved picture esthetics of HDR increases, many believe HDR will take hold; some say, to the detriment of 4K UHD production.

NEP’s Levine believes that once the industry establishes a cost-effective method for producing a simultaneous HD and HDR feed of equal production flexibility, HDR will catch on.

Working On A Workflow

“One of the big challenges with HDR is creating a SDR feed at an equal quality and keeping it cost effective,” said NEP's Levine. “Right now only a small percentage [of live sports projects] is 4K or HDR. Mostly everything is being shot in HD. Events that are in 4K and HDR also have a HD output for distribution.”

Both Grass Valley’s Hilton and Sony’s Willox agree.

“I think HDR will be the most exciting thing to happen to consumer TV since we moved from analog to digital,” Willox said. “It took years to be able to produce a digital HD sports broadcast with all the same tools available to the production company they enjoyed in standard definition. This includes multi-channel recorders, affordable lenses, transmission systems, wireless and so on.

T&M monitoring is critical to HDR production. The Leader Instruments LV5490 4K/HDR waveform monitor supports preconfigured settings to ensure the reference levels are correct for both HLG and Dolby PQ projects.

T&M monitoring is critical to HDR production. The Leader Instruments LV5490 4K/HDR waveform monitor supports preconfigured settings to ensure the reference levels are correct for both HLG and Dolby PQ projects.

“We have virtually the entire ecosystem available now for HDR production,” he said. “A few more years working closely with content producers and I believe end-users will feel very comfortable with the equipment and workflows and HDR broadcasting will become a full reality.”

“Like anything, HDR will take time to get entrenched,” Hilton said. “Right now there’s a lot of talk and little action. It’s like IP. Now everyone is doing IP. I think the same thing will happen with HDR because it is an upgrade in signal quality. IP will also helps in this regard because it gives you the flexibility to grow your bandwidth easily. Until the first company actually commits to full HDR production, I think these tests will continue. Competition has always been a driving force.”

However, some are still certain that clients want what’s most affordable and today that means HD.

“HDR technology is simply not in demand,” said TNDV’s Dugger. “The only industry professionals that appear to believe in the demand for HDR are manufacturers of the HDR hardware. It is simply not a capability that is asked for…almost ever. Having spent every day for the last 16 years bidding and producing live television, it is very easy to gauge the demand for technology—and HDR is simply not on the radar yet.”

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