ESPN CTO: It’s Too Early to Make Big Bets on 4K TV

ESPN’s top tech exec is not yet convinced that 4K/Ultra HD will take off in a big way, but the sports programming giant is starting to establish a technical framework for Ultra HD so it will be ready if the eye-popping platform gains a big consumer following.

“It’s still too early to say if I’m bullish or not 4K,” Chuck Pagano, the executive vice president and chief technology officer of ESPN, said in an interview. “I’m sort of in the middle of the road on 4K right now, because there are still a lot of variables that need to be delineated.  There is still a minimal ecosystem for us to do anything with 4K.”

He said many components that will make up the underlying 4K production system, including switchers and graphics engines, are still in development. Vendors are telling Pagano not to expect many of those pieces to be available in desired quantities until 2015.

“Right now I have too many cogs between the two ends of this ecosystem. I’ve got a camera and I’ve got a TV set,” he said. “There’s still a lot of things to figure out before we can say we’re going to be playing in this space or not yet. We’re actively looking [at 4K], but I can’t tell you I have a date in mind.”

Pagano, who was inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame last year, is likewise not convinced that consumers will notice or appreciate the difference between 4K and regular HDTV unless they’re viewing it on massive displays. He and his colleagues have studied HDTV and 4K images side-by-side on a 55-inch screen and “scratched their heads,” because there’s not a huge difference. If consumers can afford a 100-inch screen and squeeze it into their houses, then that’s something else. 

“But we’re just getting our fingers a little with dirty with trying to understand the mechanics,” he said.

And it’s not just about screen size. Those TVs will also need to support higher frame rates to get a fuller experience. Most TVs use an HDMI 1.4b-complaint interface that supports up to 24 frames per second. While that works fine for film, live television will likely need to support a minimum of 60 frames per second – a function that should be supported in the emerging 2.0 version of HDMI.

“It’s still confusing on where that’s going to go,” Pagano said. Likewise, he said H.265/High Efficiency Video Coding [HEVC],  a codec that is 50% more efficient than H.264/MPEG-4 will be a “key ingredient if we decide at some point to go with 4K.”

ESPN is starting to experimenting with 4K technology. For its coverage of the NBA finals, ESPN used a 4K camera to create HD images that allowed the network to do some dynamic, digital zooming and scanning instead of performing that function mechanically. “We’re not using it for 4K distribution, but using it for HD storytelling using 4K tools,” Pagano explained.

ESPN is also building a new digital production center, internally called DC2, in Bristol, Conn. The 190,000-square foot facility, set to launch next year, will contain five studios and be the new home of the network’s flagship SportsCenter program.

Pagano’s goal is to create a future-proofed facility with the “cardio-pulmonary system – the plumbing”  that can attach 4K productions facilities to the master grid, and support incremental upgrades in case the future of TV calls for 8K TV.

ESPN, of course, isn't the only one taking an early look at 4K. Among recent examples, Comcast and CableLabs demonstrated 4K at The Cable Show in Washington, D.C. Comcast's demo leaned on development home-side equipment, but delivered 4K video on its production network. The latest video encoding equipment and a coming line of set-tops and gateways will support HEVC, in anticipation of 4K.

Reflecting on ESPN’s 3DTV ‘Experiment’

Pagano also reflected on ESPN’s decision to shut down its 3DTV network at the end of the year, because there was limited  consumer interest in the service.

“I was never convinced that it was worthy of a full-time network. We may have overloaded people somewhat,” Pagano said, adding that, in retrospect, producing special events in 3DTV “would have been a little more intriguing.”

But ESPN will come away with some important knowledge in the bank from what Pagano called a “big science experiment,” noting that the network now has a good grip about the complexity of producing stereoscopic TV in a live environment and that experience has helped ESPN in the 2D storytelling department. 

“We gave it a shot to see where it landed. It’s simple: there wasn’t a demand curve for it,” he said. If 3DTV makes a comeback (there are some who believe 4K could help to usher in a glasses-free 3D experience and remove one of the adoption barriers), “we’ll at least be ready to entertain it again,” Pagano said.

-More of Pagano’s thoughts on 4K and 3DTV will appear in the next issue of Multichannel News.