The concept is simple enough: People have devices like Apple TV that support 4K playback and networks like Epix have 4K content to offer. But the process of connecting those dots is more complicated.
Epix earlier this year announced plans to make 4K content available to its subscribers. This week, the network revealed that Dish Network and T-Mobile’s Layer3 were the first two pay TV operators to offer that content on their set-top boxes. Epix also said that all of its subscribers from all affiliates can now access 4K UHD content through the authenticated Epix Apple TV app.
As for why Dish Network, Layer3 and Apple TV were the first platforms, Epix Chief Digital Officer Jon Dakss said Layer3 and Dish Network are at the forefront of providing 4K Ultra HD content to their customers, and that Apple TV is a great starting point for what Epix is doing with its authenticated app.
“As you can probably imagine, it is incredibly complex to stream high-quality 4K Ultra HD given the plethora of devices, TV sets and even HDMI cables that have to be configured properly,” said Dakss. “We are now actively testing 4K Ultra HD with a variety of our app platform partners. But from our standpoint Apple TV was the best platform to launch with first.”
Dakss said that Epix began work in December 2017 on bringing its 4K content to Apple TV. He said Epix’s studio partners and parent company MGM were sending the company huge source files for planned 4K offerings like the James Bond films. He said the files are 10-bit resolution and offer about four times the resolution of HD files. He said Epix team members watched the 4K films with an eye for things like feathering, mosquito noise and other digital compression artifacts that can diminish the viewing experience.
“The goal is to make sure that, for streaming this content, we’re making sure that we’re optimizing for the balance between quality and bitrate,” Dakss said. He said Epix had to account for different broadband speeds and different wi-fi setups. Because that, Epix offers 11 different versions of each piece of 4K content with varying bitrates and resolutions to adapt for the different viewing parameters.
Dakss said it involved testing the content on lots of different displays at the Epix office and also taking the content home on nights and weekends to further screen it for any issues.
Dakss said that, given the value of content like the Bond films, it was also equally important for Epix to employ effective digital rights management. The company partnered with BuyDRM to license DRM services and iterate throughout the encoding process. Dakss said that Epix is required by the content owners to ensure that only HDMI 2.0 cables which support the HDCP 2.2 copy protection standard are being used to view its 4K content to minimize content theft.
Epix encoded its 4K content for Apple TV using H.264. But Dakss said that future platform launches will use H.265. He also said that, with all of the testing Epix did for its 4K launches on this first batch of platforms, future 4K launches should be easier.
Dakss said Epix is now starting to work with other technologies like quality defined perceptual encoding optimization, which he said gives Epix the chance to keep picture quality high while significantly reducing bitrates while minimizing things like video start times.
As 4K gets off the ground, Epix is looking ahead to other video technologies like HDR and audio codecs like Dolby Atmos.
“These are all things that we are prototyping and working with as we look ahead to the future,” Dakks said.