HDR In Live Sports
Shows Promise Yet Faces Challenges
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 2020 CES, with different TV manufacturers pledging support for Dolby Vision (PQ) and Hybrid Log-Gamma (HLG) systems in addition to the baseline HDR10 standard.
However, despite this year’s NFL Super Bowl being shot in HD HDR (and mostly viewed via an OTT service as it can’t yet be delivered over the air in the U.S.), most broadcasters and live production companies in the U.S. have begun testing HDR+ – which is a 10-bit 1080p HDR image with much lower bandwidth requirements than UHD – as a money-saving option. As we saw with the Super Bowl LIV telecast, HDR shows 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.
Yet these improvements can only be 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.
Today, in the U.S., 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.
Some say the primary reason for this lack of interest is production resources. 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 and 4K is minimal.
Even mid-level production companies are seeing little interest in HDR. Nic Dugger, president of TNDV Television, 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.
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. 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. They say that all of the equipment for producing a native HDR show is now available, they’re just waiting for customers.
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.
Most say the goal is to manage 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. There has been some interest for 4K from production houses that want to preserve their footage in the best possible resolution.
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.
However, many are still certain that clients want what’s most affordable, and today that means the highest quality HD (1080p/60).