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Euro 2016 - The evolution of TV broadcasting

You ain't seen nothing yet

by Steve Withers Jun 1, 2016

  • The development of television and the broadcasting of football has always gone hand-in-hand, with major tournaments often being used as a testing ground for new TV technologies.
    The World Cup in particular, with it global audience, has been a popular test bed for TV technology; allowing broadcasters the chance to push the envelope as far as possible with each successive tournament. The European Championships haven't been going as long as the World Cup but they are also an ideal testing ground for the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), allowing its various European members the chance to work together and introduce new technologies. So how has television broadcasting evolved over the years to add to our enjoyment of football and what new technologies can we look forward to at future tournaments?
    High Definition? - The First Resolution Revolution

    The history of broadcast television in the UK can be traced back to the development of the 405-line monochrome analogue television system developed by EMI in 1934. This was the first fully electronic television system and consisted of a picture the was composed of two 377-line interlaced images that were broadcast 50 times a second, creating 25 frames per a second. The BBC began broadcasting live television in 1936 but the service was suspended during the Second World War and resumed on the 7th of June 1946. When the 405-line system was introduced it was actually referred to as ‘high definition’ due to its increased resolution over the previous 240-line system. So it would seem the resolution revolution started 80 years ago. Although by 1969 both the BBC and ITV had completely switched to producing all their programmes using the new PAL 625-line system, the extensive geographic coverage of the older VHF 405-line system meant that it wasn’t finally shut down until 1985!

    The first televised football tournament was the 1950 World Cup but since it was held in Brazil, no one back in the UK actually got to watch any games live. However the 1954 World Cup was held in Switzerland and as a result there was extensive TV coverage, thanks in part, to the creation of the Eurovision network. This was founded in 1954 by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) for the purpose of international broadcasting cooperation and the World Cup that year was the perfect showcase. Thanks to the Eurovision Network the BBC, who had a TV monopoly at the time, was able to broadcast a number of the games live in 405-line monochrome with monaural sound. The BBC’s monopoly on television didn’t last and by the time of the 1958 World Cup, which was held in Sweden, commercial television had arrived. Now both the BBC and ITV could broadcast live games although, due to the technical limitations of the Eurovision network, only one match was relayed at a time – which meant both broadcasters had to show the same games at the same time.
    Believe it or not, the original 405-line TV system from the 1930s was actually referred to as 'high definition'
    A New Standard - The Advent of PAL

    The 1962 World Cup was held in Chile but unfortunately Telstar, the first satellite capable of transmitting broadcasts across the Atlantic, wasn't operational in time for the tournament. So there was no live television coverage and film footage was flown back and shown two days later. As a result of this ITV wasn’t involved at all and the BBC only showed England’s matches and the final itself. However, everything was about to change because the next World Cup would be in England and in 1964 BBC 2 began broadcasting using the 625-line PAL (Phase Alternating Line) analogue system that we still use today for standard definition television. Although those early PAL broadcasts on BBC 2 were in black and white, they had a picture that was composed of two 576-line interlaced images that were broadcast 50 times a second to create 25 frames per a second.

    When the 1966 World Cup kicked off, the main television coverage was still broadcast using the 405-line system but TV was changing fast. BBC 2 began colour PAL transmissions in July 1967 and by 1969 both BBC 1 and ITV had begun 625-line colour transmissions. This would remain the standard for television broadcasts in the UK for the next forty years, until analogue finally gave away to digital broadcasting. In the modern era, where we have literally hundreds of channels to choose from, it’s difficult to remember a time when there were only three TV channels and they didn’t even broadcast 24 hours a day. The UK’s original UHF system was designed to carry four networks but it wasn’t until 1982 that Channel 4 began broadcasting and Channel 5 went on air in 1997 using ‘spare’ frequencies between the existing channels.

    The Information Age - The development of Teletext

    During this entire period, broadcast television in the UK remained essentially the same, based upon a 625-line colour analogue system with monaural sound. So from the colour images beamed back from the Mexico World Cup in 1970, all the way through the 1970s and into the 1980s, if you watched televised football you were watching a colour PAL image with mono sound. However there were some minor additions to the system, most notably Teletext which could be thought of as the precursor to today’s Smart TV platforms. This clever information retrieval system was developed in the 1970s, with the BBC making the first test transmissions in 1973. The system used the vertical blanking intervals between image frames in a broadcast television signal to include graphical information that could be decoded by a suitably equipped TV. Teletext allowed for pages composed of 24 lines with 40 characters each, with page selection and sub-pages of information.

    The BBC formally launched their Teletext service – called Ceefax – in 1976 with 100 pages of information and this was quickly followed by ITV’s version, which they called ORACLE. Teletext services included TV schedules, regularly updated current affairs and sport news, simple games and subtitling for the hard of hearing. The pages were broadcast sequentially, which did mean you had to wait for a page to be rebroadcast if you missed it the first time, but later TVs had simple memories allowing you to access pages quickly. In those pre-Internet days, Teletext was a useful way of finding out the news and football results without having to wait for a regularly scheduled news programme. The system may seem crude by today’s standards but it was an important first step into an information age that we now take for granted. Ultimately the rise of the Internet made Teletext services redundant and in 2012 the BBC finally closed its Ceefax service.
    The introduction of Teletext and NICAM Stereo were major steps in the evolution of modern broadcasting
    Mono No More - The arrival of NICAM Stereo

    From the beginning of television right up until the 1980s there was one thing that had remained constant – the sound quality. All TV broadcasts until the mid-80s were in mono but the BBC had been developing an early form of digital audio compression called Near Instantaneous Companded Audio Multiplex or NICAM for short. Although not initially intended for public broadcasting, the BBC realised the potential to deliver stereo programming and developed NICAM-728 – named after the 728 kbps bitstream it was sent over. The NICAM signal is transmitted on a subcarrier alongside the sound carrier, which means that the regular mono sound carrier can still be received by mono sets whilst NICAM capable TVs could receive the matching stereo broadcast.

    The BBC were testing NICAM digital stereo broadcasts at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and the first stereo programme was actually broadcast on BBC2 that same year. Although they didn’t advertise the fact until 1991 when most of the country’s transmitters had been upgraded, the BBC continued to broadcast certain programmes in stereo from 1986 onwards. Channel 4 were also performing NICAM stereo tests from 1989 using the Crystal Palace transmitter and by 1991 all the UK broadcasters offered a NICAM stereo service. From then on TV would never sound the same again, whether you were watching a film, a concert or a sporting event. These days we’re used to watching TV programmes in multi-channel audio, so it’s hard to describe what a revelation it was to watch a football match in stereo back then but it really made you feel part of the crowd.

    Heavens Above - The era of satellite broadcasting

    Satellite broadcasting and especially Sky has dominated the sporting landscape for over twenty years, ever since Sky bought the rights to televise the Premier League back in 1992. Rupert Murdoch described sport as a "battering ram" for pay-television, helping to create an immediate subscriber base. However it wasn't always that way and in the early 1980s the two satellite broadcasters – Sky Television and BSB (British Satellite Broadcasting) – both struggled to find an audience or turn a profit. In 1988 the Sky Television Network was launched with Sky One, Sky Movies, the 24-hour Sky News and Eurosport (a joint venture between the EBU and Sky) but the broadcaster still couldn't get out of the red. In 1990, with both Sky and BSB continuing to make massive losses, the two satellite broadcasters merged into British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) and were marketed under the Sky name. It took time for the new company to turn its fortunes around but sport and especially football, played a huge part in the ultimate profitability of the new satellite network.

    When Sky bought the broadcast rights to the Premier League for £304 million in 1991, the impact on the broadcast landscape was seismic and football would never be the same again. The days of watching football for free were gone and from now on you would have to pay to watch your favourite team on TV or your country play in a friendly. Over time more and more sports would move to Sky as the acquisition of broadcasting rights proved an effective model for building market share. At least some sporting events like the European Championships and the World Cup remained out of the grasp of pay-TV but for the next 20 years watching football basically meant getting Sky or going down the pub. It wasn't all bad though and Sky certainly invested heavily in their coverage, using their monopoly to pioneer or popularise many features and services that we now take for granted – such as Sky+, multiple camera angles, red button coverage, graphical statistics and analytics, high definition and even 3D.
    When you consider just how dominant Sky has become, it's hard to believe the broadcaster was initially a failure
    Changing Aspects - The beginning of widescreen TV

    When television first began back in the 1930s the screens used a ratio of 4:3 or 1.33:1, which was essentially the same as the 1.37:1 Academy aspect ratio used in the cinema at the time. As TV's popularity grew in the 1950s, the film studios began to move to wider aspect ratios ranging from 1.66:1 to 2.89:1 in order to tempt audiences away from their TV sets and back to the cinema. By the 1970s the two main aspect ratios used at the cinema were 1.85:1 and 2.35:1, although 1.66:1 was also used quite frequently in Europe. This resulted in problems when films, especially those using a ratio of 2.35:1, were broadcast on television. The broadcaster had the choice of letterboxing the image to retain the filmmaker's original widescreen compositions or use a process called 'pan and scan' which adds fake cuts and pans to the film in order to make it coherent on a 1.33:1 TV screen. The use of 'pan and scan' was particularly annoying because it was never what the filmmakers intended and whilst letterboxing the film might seem the obvious solution today, it resulted in a very small image back in the days when a 20-inch screen was considered a big TV.

    Although a film made in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio wouldn't require panning and scanning, what was often done instead was to open up the frame so you saw the full 1.37:1 camera negative. Not only did this again change the film's composition but it also meant that things that were never meant to be seen, like boom mikes for example, were suddenly visible. It was an unfortunate state of affairs, especially for film fans, and the growing popularity of home video and the precipitous drop in cinema attendances in the 1980s saw most films being made in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio or using the Super35 process in order to make it easier to convert them to a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The obvious solution to all this was to move to a TV screen ratio that better approximated the 1.85:1 aspect ratio used at the cinema – then there would be almost no letterboxing required on a 1.85:1 film and an acceptable amount on a 2.35:1 film. The result was the development of 16:9 or 1.78:1 aspect ratio widescreen television. There was an early attempt at widescreen TV with the analogue PAL+ system, which used a 16:9 aspect ratio, but it wasn't until the late 1990s with the increased popularity of digital satellite broadcasting and the move to digital terrestrial broadcasting that there was large scale adoption of widescreen TV.

    Into the Digital Realm - The switch to digital broadcasting

    When football came home at the 1996 European Championships in England, it was the first tournament to be referred to as the Euros and the last to be broadcast in analogue. The world of TV was about to change forever and by the 1998 World Cup in France satellite digital broadcasting had begun and terrestrial digital broadcasting was about to follow. By the time of the Euro 2000 championships in Belgium and the Netherlands, digital broadcasting was widespread, although it wasn't until the 2002 World Cup in Japan & South Korea that a major tournament was broadcast entirely digitally. The obvious effect of this move to digital broadcasting was that from now on the primary aspect ratio used was 16:9 (1.78:1), although it would be a few years before most peoples' TV screens followed suit. Aside from the change in your TV's aspect ratio, the other big change brought about by the advent of digital broadcasting was the arrival of hundreds of new channels.

    The television landscape would never be the same again, with a huge amount of choice – although to be fair a lot of these new channels weren't actually very good. Still the days of being stuck with nothing to watch on TV were definitely over and now the problem became one of too much choice. The BBC decided to concentrate on delivering a few high quality digital channels with minimal compression but unfortunately many other broadcasters went the quantity route instead and as a result the picture quality actually deteriorated in some cases when compared to the old analogue broadcasts. By the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the tournament was entirely 'tapeless' with broadcasters having access to games from a central media server and all the games being broadcast digitally and in high definition. It wasn't just the picture that had evolved, thanks to digital broadcasting the audio had also progressed, going from stereo to full surround sound by 2006.
    The move to digital broadcasting and high definition completely revolutionised our enjoyment of televised football
    High Definition… Again - The second resolution revolution

    Although it was the advent of digital broadcasting that finally made high definition a reality, incredibly the 1990 World Cup in Italy was the first to be recorded and transmitted in high definition by the Italian broadcaster RAI in association with the Japanese broadcaster NHK. However it wouldn't be until the 2006 World Cup that high definition coverage was available to the masses using a picture that was composed of two 1080-line interlaced images that were broadcast 50 times a second to create 25 frames per a second. At last true high definition was a reality and, along with larger size widescreen TVs and surround sound, watching football would never be the same again.

    It wasn't just TV that had gone digital, we now lived in a digital age and the information society glimpsed in the early days of Teletext finally reached its zenith when the internet and broadcasting merged to create the Smart TV. Whilst the initial Smart TVs were somewhat slow and there were many people who questioned the need for internet access on a TV in the first place, the platform quickly found its feet. Since watching TV is essentially a passive activity, people didn't necessarily want to interact directly with their TV but they could instead use the TV along side their smart devices and even use those devices to control or send content to the TV. Although what really gave Smart TV a purpose was the increase in broadband speeds coupled with rise of video streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and YouTube. The popularity of video streaming has been remarkable and it has helped drive development of TV technology and, as we'll see in a moment, could change the very nature of broadcasting.

    Boom and Bust - The return of 3D

    As a cinema format 3D has often experienced brief periods of popularity, with booms in the 1920s, 1950s and 1980s. Those of you who were around in the 80s will probably remember a brief experiment with broadcast 3D using red and blue anaglyph glasses. The results were awful but by 2010 digital technology had allowed filmmakers to shoot and project 3D in way that simply hadn't been possible in the past. As a result 3D was experiencing its biggest boom ever at the cinema and TV manufacturers and broadcasters realised there might be potential at home as well. So the South African World Cup became the first to be filmed and broadcast in 3D and, as it turned out, the last. The principal was simple, the games were filmed using a two camera rig, with one camera filming the right eye view and the other filming the left. These two images were then usually broadcast side-by-side in high definition, so that when combined and watched through a pair of polarised glasses you had a 3D image, albeit at lower vertical resolution.

    The idea of 3D as a home format seemed to be gaining in popularity by 2012 with Sky broadcasting 3D football on a dedicated 3D channel and the BBC simultaneously broadcasting much of the London Olympics in both 2D and 3D. However the popularity quickly waned and, as a public broadcaster the BBC found it hard to justify the expense for such a small audience. Sky kept their 3D channel going for longer but even that was eventually shut down and by the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, none of the broadcasters were talking about 3D any more. Why did 3D broadcasting fail? Ultimately it came down to people not being prepared to wear glasses to watch football, the coverage itself wasn't that good sometimes and often the low angled shots, chosen to emphasis the depth of the 3D, made the action hard to follow. Although broadcast 3D had failed, the majority of people weren't bothered and most were very happy with their digital widescreen high definition coverage... or were they?
    Let's hope that Ultra HD fares better than 3D when it comes to football and broadcasting in general over the next few years
    The Third Resolution Revolution - The start of Ultra HD broadcasting

    Whilst 3D broadcasting was dead and buried by the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, broadcasters and manufacturers were already testing Ultra HD 4K cameras and transmissions. Since then BT Sport has begun to stream Ultra HD coverage of the Champions League and Premier League, proving that streaming might well be the future of 4K broadcasting, a number of European satellite broadcasters have started Ultra HD channels and Sky will follow suit later in the year. At this summer's Euro 2016 in France the opening match, the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final will all be filmed in Ultra HD using a 12 camera production. Sadly we won't get a chance to watch those games in 4K here in the UK because neither the BBC nor ITV are currently broadcasting in Ultra HD, although you might be able to steam a 4K broadcast using a media streamer and Kodi. However it's only a matter of time before Ultra HD broadcasts start here in the UK and based on the sales of 4K TVs and the popularity of 4K video streaming services, it looks as though Ultra HD will achieve mass market acceptance far quicker than anyone imagined. The move to a higher resolution of 3,840 x 2,160 doesn't just mean more pixels but also a full progressive image at 50 frames a second. This means that football broadcast in Ultra HD not only has increased detail but also better motion thanks to the progressive rather than interlaced broadcasts or streams.

    More Pixels or Better Pixels? - High Dynamic Range and Wider Colour Gamut

    The increased resolution of Ultra HD and the progressive delivery is only the start and the standards for the format allow for a number of technological advances that might have an even greater impact on our viewing enjoyment. One of these advances is High Dynamic Range (HDR), which could have a big effect on football coverage going forward as it will allow broadcasters to show greater detail in the image as the action moves around the pitch. At the moment, when a player moves into a part of the pitch that is in shadow the image goes darker and the camera operator has to open the camera's iris in order to see the action. As soon as the player moves back into a sunlit part of the pitch the contrast blows out because the iris is open and the camera operator has to close it again. Anyone who watches a lot of football will be familiar with this effect but with HDR that won't be a problem any more.

    The BBC and Dolby have been working on HDR solutions for Ultra HD broadcasting and when implemented the TV broadcast will have enough latitude to show detail in the sunlit parts of the pitch and detail in the shadows within the same image. The new standards for Ultra HD broadcasts won't only include an increased resolution and higher dynamic range, they will also offer a wider colour gamut than the current standard of Rec.709. This will mean more realistic colours in future Ultra HD TV coverage as broadcasters and manufacturers take full advantage of the wider colour gamut provided by the Rec.2020 standard.
    4K, HDR, Wider Colour Gamuts, Higher Frame Rates and immersive audio – the future of broadcasting is very exciting
    What's Next?

    Perhaps the biggest advantage that the advent of Ultra HD 4K can offer football and sports broadcasting in general is a move to higher frame rates. Shooting and broadcasting football matches at 100 progressive frames will make a huge difference to the enjoyment of football, with smooth and detailed motion delivered in breathtaking resolution.

    It isn't just the image that will be improving over the next few years, the audio will also be getting an upgrade as we move to sports broadcasts that use height channels. BT Sport have already been running test broadcasts with Dolby in conjunction with their Champions League coverage to provide a Dolby Atmos experience delivered within a Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack. This will not only allow for the audio to create a multi-dimensional soundstage that will realistically recreate the sensation of actually being in the stadium but, since the commentary will be a separate object within the mix, you might even have the option to turn it off.

    So who knows by the time we get to the 2018 World Cup in Russia we could be watching all the action in Ultra HD 4K resolution, at 100 progressive frames a second, using the Rec.2020 colour space, with High Dynamic Range and immersive audio. Now that's what we call evolution!

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