The World Cup's TV tech boost

20 Jun 2018  |  Raymond Snoddy 
The World Cup's TV tech boost

The unheralded World Cup winner is already clear, writes Raymond Snoddy - the alphabet soup of UHD TV, HDR and 4K

A goal in injury time has kept the hope alive, at least until Sunday, and obscured the catalogue of missed chances, some verging on the comedic.

With expectations moderate, for obvious historic reasons, will some magic happen in Russia that will keep England’s interest in the World Cup alive into the second week of July?

As a wise QPR supporter was once heard to observe during a game – in the end it’s the hope that kills you.

But there already has been a big World Cup winner in the UK, beyond Harry Kane, and that is the television industry.

In the most obvious sense it comes in the viewing figures – a peak of more than 21 million for the opening England game against Tunisia easily putting Meghan and Harry in their place, numbers that will continue to grow as long as England is in the competition, however long that proves to be, before the air seeps out of the balloon.

It is also a great period for the football themed advertising of beers, cars and fast food and comparison holiday and hotel sites, although a tad too many gambling commercial messages for some tastes.

But the largely unheralded World Cup winner is already clear – the alphabet soup of UHD TV, HDR and 4K, or as the laity call it, the next generation of large screen, high performance television sets.

Large international sporting events such as the Olympics help to spread a new television technology throughout society but nothing quite rings the bell like the World Cup.

It was clear this week at the fifth annual Ultra HD conference held by satellite group SES that the march of Ultra HD television, and with it much larger screens, has passed a critical threshold and is now close to unstoppable over time.

In the past 12 months 2.5 million sets have been sold in the UK and the total installed is about to pass 6 million. At these sort of levels word-of-mouth starts to kick in and most people will know someone who has one rather than just survey the ranks of sets in John Lewis.

As Nick Simon, consumer electronics specialist at market research group GfK puts it, above 40 inches UHD is almost the default purchase and two thirds of set sales are now of 40 inches or above. It is even becoming difficult with some manufacturers to find a large screen which is not ultra high definition.

The speed of uptake has been faster than that of HD and, according to SES, more than 100 UHD channels are now being distributed by satellite around the world, over 40 of them in Europe.

The World Cup is being broadcast in UHD/4K from Germany and Brazil to Israel and in the UK – sort of.

In what is being carefully labelled a “trial” the BBC is transmitting the 29 World Cup games it has access to in UHD via the iPlayer, but has warned that you need at least 40 Mbits a second broadband and 50 would probably be better.

Because of capacity pressures the BBC has warned that the service is only available on a first come, first served basis and has only promised to be able to deliver to “tens of thousands.”

There is another small catch as Richard Halton, chief executive of YouView, the British group which has been at the forefront of delivering television online, found out.

The vast amounts of information being transmitted means that there is a 15 second delay on the strictly live.

Halton was getting texts about Harry Kane’s winning goal on his phone before his BBC UHD coverage caught up.

Retail specialists believe that the World Cup could be responsible for an 8 to 10 per cent boost in sales in the months running up to the event – although that in part is merely pulling later sales forward. But from the sales boost it makes sure the technology is talked about.

Should the unexpected happen and England does really well, there could even be a mini-stampede in the next couple of weeks.

It all felt very different in September 2013 to participate in “the great debate” at IBC Amsterdam on whether we really need to go beyond HD at all.

Strangely, given the technological nature of the venue, the antis won – just - on the grounds that HD was still working its way through the consumer world and that the electronic manufacturers were trying to force-feed their customers too early and that their share prices could suffer as a result.

There was also the problem that for maximum effect 50-55 inch screens are probably best and not all rooms are big enough to cope. You also need the space to sit far enough back for comfortable viewing.

There is also the problem that people often think they are watching 4K when they don’t have a compatible box to receive it, or the set is not properly tuned in. They are merely enjoying better quality television sets.

It now looks like the battle has been, or is about to be, won by the set makers and, after a period of gradual decline, TV sales in the UK are creeping back up again towards 6 million a year.

Many consumers obviously just like better quality and larger pictures, boosted by the move towards streaming. Increasingly they are prepared to pay the prices that are starting to fall anyway, as with all newly introduced consumer electronic products. The higher values are good news for consumer electronic companies and the beleaguered High Street.

The question was raised at the SES conference of whether £1,500 was the tipping point that would see sales accelerate, although there are already considerably cheaper versions.

More programming is becoming available in UHD, including from the new players and BT Sport.

YouView, the platform consortium of BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, BT, Talk Talk and Arqiva behind more than 3 million set-top boxes, has this week added Amazon Prime HD TV, with UHD being added to its roster soon.

The BBC could even extend its trial to Wimbledon.

UHD/4K, however, is not the end of the story before the laws of physics and diminishing returns start to apply.

There will be an 8K channel for the Olympics in Japan in 2020 and can 8K be far behind for Harry Kane’s second World Cup campaign?

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