By Jim Barthold
with Michael Davies, senior vice president of field and technical operations at FoxSports
Fresh off coverage of the 2014 baseball All Star game, with 36 mostly HD cameras and a sprinkling of 4K devices catching every smile on Mike Trout's face, Michael Davies, senior vice president of field and technical operations at FoxSports sat down with FierceCable's Contributing Editor Jim Barthold to talk about 4K's impact now and in the future of sports broadcasting.
FierceCable: Is there a future for 4K in sports broadcasting?
Michael Davies: In terms of 4K for broadcast, that's a huge investment and frankly I don't think it's anything we're going to get into soon. This is our third year using 4K to zoom into areas of interest on replay. The camera operator shoots the game pretty much as normal but with 4K then, when you're ready to go into an area of interest like a line call in football or tag on the base in baseball or crash in a motor car race, you can zoom in with less resolution loss. We do some revisionist camera work and replay what you've seen.
FierceCable: Where might viewers have seen this? And, frankly, have they even noticed the improvement?
Davies: It's been particularly useful in football. We use one 4K camera for our A [lead] game every week and six for the Super Bowl. We had some with us last night at the All Star game. The viewer sees that you were shooting wide and then you can zoom in and potentially pan around. If you don't do it quite right, the viewer won't notice anything.
FierceCable: Since the games are already in HD, why not just use the highest resolution 1080p 60 frames and forget 4K?
Davies: There's 5 to 10 percent of the time where you can get in there and see something different with 4K because you can zoom-crop without resolution loss. With HD if you tried to zoom in the resolution would break down sufficiently that it would be a pixelated mess.
FierceCable: Given that 4K gives you a better look at the games and its proponents claim it will provide a more "immersive" experience, what's stopping you from going all-out 4K?
Davies: As I said before, it's a huge investment. The industry as a whole paid an awful lot to go to HD and nobody is looking forward to putting that kind of capital into doing 4K.
FierceCable: But isn't moving to 4K from HD like moving from SD to HD? Won't broadcasters just have to bite the bullet and move to 4K?
Davies: The market is moving so rapidly that some people wonder if 4K is just a flash in the pan. Is it better to wait for 8K which is being trialed in Japan with NHK? Why put all this money into 4K and by the time you get it completed we're at 8K? At this point HD is just fine. You'll see some glimmers of 4K as Sony and Panasonic and those who would like to get content out there subsidize some things as they did for the World Cup, but it's going to take a great subsidy to get companies like ours to make the jump.
FierceCable: Speaking of HD, some have suggested that perhaps using the top HD level, 1080 progressive with 60 frames per second might be all viewers need or want. Why isn't that the next step instead of going to an all-new format?
Davies: It's only been very recently that you were actually able to produce a show end-to-end in 1080p. Trucks and other infrastructure had 1080p but some of the large boxes in between, the servers, weren't ready. Then you have your distribution to think about. Everything in the studio ends up being normal 720 or 1080i and that's tough to switch around. On the other hand, 1080p is a cost-conscious kind of thing. It looks good but in this age of 4K looking at 8k, if you're going to spend any money on 1080p, people would wonder what you're doing. It's a tough market to make any decision so I think you'll see a lot of broadcasters standing pat.
FierceCable: Many believe that sports broadcasts will drive 4K into the mainstream just as they drove SD to HD. If that's the case, will outside forces cause you to move to 4K?
Davies: Actually, you would be giving up an awful lot in terms of 4K. All the things that now we've perfected in HD would have to be re-done and re-tooled for 4K. Most of the people who don't have 4K would be getting an inferior product.