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BT Sport Ultra HD - 21st Century Broadcasting

BT take sports broadcasting to the next level with their new 4K service

by Steve Withers Oct 29, 2015


  • When you hear the name BT you probably think of telephone lines and broadband but do you ever think of them as a broadcaster?
    Well perhaps you should because BT Sport's recent purchase of the exclusive broadcast rights to the Champions League has seen the internet service provider develop some of the most sophisticated and cutting edge broadcast capabilities on the planet. The reason for buying the rights might seem obvious and BT have never made any secret of the fact that they're doing it to increase their share of the broadband market and generate more subscribers to BT Sport. However in much the same way that Sky's purchase of the rights to Premiere League heralded a new era of satellite broadcasting and cutting edge sports coverage, so BT Sport are leading the way in the new battleground of internet delivery.

    BT Sport started broadcasting on the 1st of August 2013 with three channels and this year they celebrated their second birthday by increasing their service to thirteen channels. Within these new channels is Showcase, which is their DTV channel that allows Freeview customers to access BT Sport free-to-air. However providing a Full HD service is only the beginning and from BT Sport's perspective Ultra HD 4K is the next logical step. The broadcaster couldn't see any value in 3D but the way people view 4K allows the increased resolution to immediately impact on the quality of their experience. The other obvious reason for BT Sport to launch a UHD service is that delivery can currently only be done over a super-fast broadband IP network which BT just happened to have.
    BT Sport launched a 4K service because delivery can currently only be done over a super-fast broadband IP network which they just happened to have.
    Of course launching an Ultra HD 4K channel isn't something that just happens overnight and BT have been conducting 4K trails for the last 18 months, working closely with partners like Sony, Snell and Fuji, essentially becoming their R&D department by helping them test in the field. BT wanted to do live sports broadcasts in 4K and also launch a UHD channel and in order to do that they would need an OB (outside broadcast) truck that was built around 4K. Unfortunately at the time one didn’t exist, so they created Europe’s first 4K OB truck, which allowed them to get the configuration, the cameras, the lenses and the switching in the OB truck all working in the 4K world.

    BT said that the biggest and best decision they made was around their choice of switching in the truck and they went with Snell because through that switch they can shoot in native 4K, down res to Full HD and broadcast live to both channels simultaneously. At the moment the UHD production workflow sits alongside Full HD but is still separate from it; however BT's ultimate goal is to capture everything in 4K and that will provide a single source for all their coverage. Since BT also have an obligation to deliver Full HD feeds to other broadcasters, it will eventually prove an efficient and cost effective way of providing both an Ultra HD and Full HD service.

    BT Sport had a clear deadline for their development of an Ultra HD broadcasting capability because they wanted to launch the new service in conjunction with their exclusive Champions League coverage. The result is the first Ultra HD channel in Europe and the first in the world to be able to do glass-to-glass live coverage. Along with the new Ultra HD channel, BT Sport also launched BT Sport Europe which is the home of both the Champions League and European football.

    BT also felt that, aside from it's tie-in with the Champions League, there's another reason why now is a good time to launch an Ultra HD channel - which is that there's a reasonable number of UHD TVs in the market place. BT believe that it’s Smart TV technology that is driving the TV market, people are buying new TVs for their smart capabilities and since they also happen to be 4K TVs, people naturally want 4K content to watch on them. BT think we've reached a tipping point because up until now everyone was talking about 4K but because there was no end product or platform, companies were only prepared to go so far in terms of investment.
    BT Sport's investment in Ultra HD 4K is obvious from the moment you walk into their new studio complex, which is in the old broadcast building in the Olympic Park. The BT Sport studios are the largest in the UK, measuring 14,500 square feet, and yet they were constructed in only 18 weeks at a budget that was considerably less than equivalent new studio facilities such as the BBC's centre in Glasgow. The studio space actually consists of three separate studios, each of which can be seen from the other to create a sense of cohesion and excitement.

    The main studio space includes a football pitch laid out with LEDs that is used as space to position augmented reality information within the physical set. There are camera cranes as well, allowing BT Sport to deliver as dynamic a show as possible as they follow Jake Humphrey and the other presenters around this vast space. There are also TVs on central columns and a giant 4K projector screen. There are large windows so that the cameras can see into the galleries (control rooms), thus creating additional interesting backdrops to all the studio drama. There are special lighting boxes on the walls that can change colour in order to create seamless transitions between studios.

    BT Sport are able to have all three studios on air at the same time as they provide unprecedented coverage of Champions League football and other sports such as Premiership Rugby and MotoGP. Their Ultra HD services was launched with the Community Shield and since then they have covered the Champions League, the Premiership and even squash. However their coverage of the MotoGP at Silverstone was the world’s biggest 4K broadcast with 19 cameras and, in another world’s first, BT were also able to get their RF technology down to a 1 second delay. This meant they could use RF 4K cameras for the first time, which gave them access into the paddock but BT are working to reduce that latency still further so they can actually put the cameras into field events.

    On a Champions League night there are nine live games and BT Sport are broadcasting all of them in Full HD and one also in Ultra HD 4K. At the moment all the studio filming is still done in Full HD, so when the UHD broadcasts aren’t showing the actual footage shot at the game, the images are Full HD upscaled to Ultra HD resolution. Once the game starts the coverage splits into two with separate commentary teams for the Full HD and Ultra HD broadcasts. When BT did a test UHD broadcast of Rugby Aid earlier in the year, they actually did everything in 4K and simultaneously broadcast in Full HD and UHD, which was another world's first. However they found that viewers still wanted the normal show combined with the 4K coverage and since the studio isn't currently setup for 4K, they just upscale that footage when they need to. Ultimately BT will transition to a completely 4K workflow but for now the majority of the infrastructure is still based around Full HD.
    BT Sport Ultra HD is the first channel in the world to be able to do 4K glass-to-glass live coverage.
    However even the Full HD aspects of their coverage are impressive and BT have invested heavily in new technologies in order to give the viewer the best possible experience. As mentioned they have a creative team that produces all the augmented reality images that are dropped into the coverage. BT are wary of over using augmented reality and it is primarily used for showing what games are coming up, taking the coverage in and out of ad breaks and for analysis.

    When BT Sport Europe was launched BT also added the graphic 'L' this allows a two-way conversation with viewers rather than just broadcasting pictures. It is literally an 'L' shaped graphic down the left hand side and along the bottom of the picture. So now BT can editorialise what’s happening in the world of football and bring social media into the platform. It's not a news site but a sports update and it's on when there’s no live sport and disappears during live broadcasts.

    BT also wanted to take their TV coverage a stage further and another new feature is the connected red button which allows viewers to keep up with the action in nine concurrent games with all the information like team line-ups and statistics available before kick-off. During the games you're kept up to date with what's happening in all the matches so you don't have to miss a single goal, penalty, free kick or red card. BT is committed to making their platform the best possible place to watch all the Champions League games.

    There’s also their new app, which is another feature that BT feel is world class and on a Champions League night the entire new feature set of the app is available. In addition with their Europa League coverage you can watch all of the games live on the app if you so desire. It's a great example of how traditional broadcast is merging with new technologies to complete viewing experience. It's great news if you're a football fan but perhaps less so for the rest of the family.

    On Champions League nights BT Sport also provides the Goal Show, which is best described as Saturday Football with pictures. A team of pundits watches all the games and gives their opinions on goals, free kicks and refereeing decisions. BT Sport also has extensive video-on-demand services, which they are currently expanding, and they provide condensed versions of the games along with digital catch-up of all their shows.

    They have benefited from including all of their internal and external production teams in one place, which means that along with 150 Full HD feeds they also provide facilities for other broadcasters to add voice over and commentary, including foreign languages, as well as an extensive social media section. The entire facility is completely networked so that all the studios, galleries, feeds, voice overs, commentaries and clips are connected and everything and be easily moved from one place to another.
    Whilst it can produce it's own content, BT Sport is also happy to work with other partners where appropriate and in fact The Clare Balding Show is recorded at the BT Sports studios for their channel, with a cut down thirty minute show sold to the BBC. BT Sport have also worked with the BBC in terms of coverage for NFL games and they partnered up with Channel 4 for the Athletics Championships in Doha. Whilst BT Sports is currently focused on sports broadcasting there is also the wider aspect of BT TV and whilst that currently provides content from other companies, there's nothing really stopping BT from producing content in other areas, such as their recent deal with AMC.

    However the main reason we were at the studios was to watch the Ultra HD broadcast of a live Champions League match and get our first taste of 4K football. The current Ultra HD set top box uses the HEVC codec and delivers Ultra HD 4K images in 10-bit video at 50p and using the Rec.709 colour space. This is how the content is captured using the Sony 4K cameras that BT Sport helped develop and they actually own cameras one to twelve. Interestingly the UHD TVs in the boardroom where we were watching the coverage were all flat screens and when we asked Jamie Hindhaugh, BT Sports Chief Operating Officer, why that was he said why use curved screens, they're the wrong shape for field sports!

    Watching football in Ultra HD 4K is a fantastic experience and the level of detail was simply astonishing - you could make out individual faces in the crowd. The motion of the 50p broadcast also looked very good and it's fair to say that any limitations were undoubtedly down to the LCD TV panels rather than the quality of the broadcast. We were watching on large 55 and 65 inch screens and the 4K images were pleasingly free of any compression artefacts, resulting in a genuinely exciting experience. One thing that we did notice was that due to the increased resolution, and also the limited number of cameras, the coverage tended to use much wider shots and we really liked this approach. There are far less cuts and close-ups but the result is an experience that is more like actually being at a live game and you get a better idea of what other players are doing on the pitch.
    The use of wider shots means that watching an Ultra HD 4K broadcast is more like actually being at the game - an approach we really liked.
    After only a few minutes of watching Ultra HD football, it was surprising how quickly you became accustomed to the increased resolution and when we looked at one of the Full HD screens, footage that had seemed fine previously suddenly looked a bit rubbish. It certainly made it clear that you can easily tell the difference between Full HD and Ultra HD, even on a 55-inch screen seen from a distance. Jamie also mentioned that sound is an important part of the experience and that they currently use Dolby Digital but are looking at ways to take the audio to another level. According to Jamie, BT believes that Dolby Atmos might be the best answer with its 5.1.4 speaker configuration.

    When we asked Jamie about the other big new technology these days - HDR (High Dynamic Range) - he said that they were looking at broadcasting games in HDR and that they had already done an HDR broadcast test in partnership with the BBC when they covered the America's Cup this year. He also said that whilst some broadcasters want to use HDR with Full HD content, presumably because they will struggle to deliver Ultra HD any time soon, he felt that HDR should only be used with UHD in order to differentiate it from Full HD and thus avoid diluting its effect or confusing consumers. The UHD specifications are currently being decided and BT Sport will certainly support any new standards that are added. However Jamie stressed that BT Sport don't produce TV content just to meet standards and ultimately they want to give the viewer the best possible experience.

    BT Sport are certainly doing that, regardless of whether you're watching in Full HD or Ultra HD but it's in the latter that they are really blazing a trail. Whilst other service providers might join BT Sport by adding an Ultra HD channel, Jamie felt that satellite broadcast of 4K was further away than people realised and that DTV 4K might never happen. As things currently stand, IP delivery is the best option and as broadband speeds and coverage increases, BT Sports capabilities will only improve. Ultimately that's what we took away from our time with them - not only are they a serious and highly sophisticated broadcaster but they are also fundamentally changing the way we all watch television, even if we don't realise it yet.

    So how do you actually get BT Sport Ultra HD? Well obviously you'll need to be a BT broadband customer with access to at least BT Infinity 1 or better still Infinity 2 and you'll need a minimum of 44Mps. You'll also need to subscribe to BT Sport, which costs £15 a month. For that you get BT's new 1TB Ultra HD YouView+ set top box which gives you access to 47 premium channels including 13 HD channels and up to 80 Freeview channels. You also get access to all the catch-up services, you can buy or rent the latest movies on BT Store and you can watch TV on the move using TV Everywhere. There are also promotions running from time to time with free or cheaper access to BT Sports if you sign up for their internet and landline line deals. Of course the most important feature you'll get if you have the internet speed is access to the BT Sport Ultra HD channel, making you one of the first to experience 4K broadcasting in your home. So what are you waiting for?

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