DirecTV wants to make 4K HDR sports par for the course. Here’s how it’ll work

Pebble Beach Golf Links, located on the south side of the picturesque Monterey Peninsula in California, is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world. I’ve seen it played by masters of the game many dozens of times on TV, yet as I stand on a bluff overlooking the iconic 7th hole, the scent of the sea mixing with freshly cut Winter Rye grass, I realize I’ve never really seen this place before. The scene is rich with distinct hues of green fairways, the deep blue of the Pacific, and tiny grains of sand glinting in the sun, none of which appeared on TV before. That’s because TV was never able to reproduce these scenes properly … until now.

For years we’ve been unable to see the true hue of a red Ferarri or the tell-tale green of a CalTrans highway sign because of aging color and brightness standards developed 65 years ago for the broadcast industry. Even though the technology in our TVs passed them up long ago, those standards prevented 4K HDR signals — and the expanded color gamut that come with them — from being delivered to our TVs. Now that the signal delivery has caught up, it’s possible to visit Pebble Beach without setting foot in Monterey California, and DirecTV is bringing that lifelike experience to subscribers who own 4K HDR TVs.

We wanted to know how it was done, so we went behind the scenes with DirecTV at the February 2018 Pebble Beach Pro-Am tournament to see a live 4K HDR broadcast production first-hand and find out when this kind of content might become the new standard.

HDR magic

John Ward, SVP of content operations for AT&T mobility and entertainment, sits in a darkened, air-conditioned TV trailer surrounded by dozens of monitors and hundreds of illuminated buttons and dials. In one corner of the room sits a $45,000 Sony 4K HDR OLED broadcast monitor, in the other, a $1,300 LG 55UH6550 4K TV. Next door, in a similar trailer, several producers wearing headsets excitedly orchestrate a symphony of cameras and a handful of commentators to produce seamless televised coverage of the tournament.

The impact HDR has on a TV’s image is far easier to appreciate than all the extra pixels of 4K.

“So the whole attempt with any of this stuff, really, is to try to continue to provide the most immersive experience whether it’s video or audio,” Ward tells us. “But on the video side, high dynamic range — HDR — we truly feel is what we’ve always kind of referred to as the UVD, the unique visual difference.”

While 4K resolution has gotten a lot of buzz over the past few years, ask any TV expert and they’ll tell you that the impact HDR has on a TV’s image is far easier to appreciate than all the extra pixels 4K brings on its own. In fact, looking back, adding HDR to 1080p TVs might have been an easier sell for TV makers than rolling out 4K first. But, no matter, HDR is here now, and it aims to help your TV make you feel like you are smack in the middle of the action.

“For people who this time of year in February are in the Midwest, door shut, heater on … we want to try to attempt, if you can’t be here in person, to put the viewer here and experience it here,” Ward continues. “HDR really clearly defined is an attempt to have the actual experience on television resemble what your eyes would see first-hand – shadows, contrast, color saturation. And as far as this venue — as you’re here today and you know certainly yesterday and all weekend – it looks great. It’s one of the most beautiful spots on earth so it really lends itself to tell the visual story of the tournament, and I’m excited to be here!”

DirectTV Pebble Beach 4K TV
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

Ward’s excitement is understandable, and it’s a feeling shared by the entire DirecTV production crew. Sure, they’ve produced a few live events in 4K before – from NHL Hockey Games to The Masters tournament at Augusta National — but the scene at Pebble Beach lends itself especially well to 4K HDR. If Ward and his crew do it right, HDR makes a difference you not only see, but also feel.

“All you need to do is look at the water here — the shots that are wide that show off the water — and the different colors of blue,” Ward gestures toward a live shot of the Pacific. “When you see the coral that’s right there below the ocean, it’s darker. And then there’s lighter blue as the waves hit and crash over the rocks. That, to me, is what I don’t think TV has ever shown this well. Cloud formations … today is a pretty bright and clear day, and your eyes perceive the different shapes of clouds in reality. Typically, TV shows clouds as white blobs.”

If Ward and his crew do it right, HDR makes a difference you not only see, but also feel. 

Yet, the monitor on which Ward’s crew is producing 4K HDR footage shows clouds that are anything but white blobs. Instead, there are clearly defined shapes and shades of white and off-white. The image is so three-dimensional, you feel like you could reach out and touch it. And it looks exactly like what we saw just a few minutes earlier as we perused the course.

For those who don’t have HDR-capable TVs, the image still looks better. Since the HDR format used for broadcasts like this (HLG) is backward compatible, folks with older TVs that don’t support HDR still benefit, and DirecTV doesn’t have to do anything different. Those with HDR-capable sets simply see a more stunning picture.

DirectTV 4K HDR Pebble Beach

The technical difficulties

Unfortunately, only three holes on the 18-hole course are being shot in 4K HDR – holes 7, 17, and 18. Sure, those are some of the most beautiful holes, but … why only three?

The answer explains why 4K HDR live broadcasts remain few and far between, even though Netflix, Amazon, and Ultra HD Blu-ray discs make 4K HDR content production look like it should be commonplace.

You know, we’ve made great strides in two years but there’s still a big, big road to go down. It’s tough. There’s a ton of bandwidth needed. The cameras exist … but when you talk about the television environment and doing a production, the routing — moving signals around, the tons of bandwidth needed to do that — most trucks that are built now have 3G capability and the bandwidth and infrastructure to move signals around, but then right here, this video switcher,” Ward points to a clearly expensive and advanced piece of equipment, “this is a critical part of the show.”

Unfortunately, that switcher isn’t common, and requires a lot of adjustments to the team’s workflow. A 4K HDR camera feed takes up four inputs where a standard camera feed would take just one. That means that the more 4K HDR feeds you decide to use, the fewer camera options you have. You get a more beautiful, high-res signal, but you get fewer of them to work with. The 4K HDR equipment available today isn’t scalable to match today’s tech … yet.

DirecTV is stepping in with cash to help stunning televised events reach more people.

“You wouldn’t take paintbrushes from Picasso and expect the same picture,” Ward grins. “Same with these guys who have done productions one after another for years and they’ve had 30 cameras and 40 cameras, and now you tell them ‘you have 13!’”

It becomes clear that the folks responsible for delivering the content are ready to provide more HDR video to viewers, but those who help produce live broadcasts – despite agreeing HDR is clearly superior — are reluctant to make the adjustment due to a combination of sticker shock and the time it takes to learn how to do more with less.

There are more technical challenges, too. Traditionally, all those cameras sprawled across a sport event are beaming their signals to a production truck via microwave signal – no wires. For its 4K HDR production of just three holes, CBS has to run miles of cables to get the camera signals back for processing. Running that much cable takes time, money, and in some cases simply isn’t feasible – it definitely isn’t scalable. For live 4K HDR to go mainstream, huge amounts of data must travel wirelessly, and that’s going to require tons of expensive new equipment, and, likely, a robust 5G network to run through.

There is one approach which could help smooth out the transition, though. If broadcasters were to make a more incremental improvement by stepping up from the 720p video they deliver now to 1080p HD, then add the HDR layer, far less bandwidth would be needed to make this all work.

“1080p is, I think, a quicker road to getting a complete show. We truly believe HDR makes the difference,” says Ward. “We would take that on our end and we would actually make that 4K. We would convert those images, but we’d really insist that all of those images — from an acquisition standpoint — be 1080p native. I think that’s the first step.”

Mo’ Money, mo’ awesome

Sometimes you can’t make something work by throwing a ton of money at it. But that doesn’t mean DirecTV isn’t going to use some of its financial muscle to help the industry move things along a bit. It’s stepping in with cash and resources to help the likes of CBS, NBC, ESPN, and other networks produce televised events that look stunning and can reach a wide range of people.

“We’re pushing all the technology partners to kind of continue to push this forward.”

We kind of come along and help work with them and collaborate with them,” Ward says proudly. “And you know essentially we’re pushing them … we’re pushing all the technology partners to kind of continue to push this forward.”

CBS may have captured the event and broadcast it, but it was DirectTV that made the 4K HDR aspect of this broadcast possible. The company did it with NBC at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, with CBS at Pebble Beach, and will continue to work with other broadcast partners for the rest of the year to bring even more stunning visuals to live sports broadcasts.

In doing so, DirecTV hopes it can help usher in a new era of gorgeous TV broadcasts — something special which will keep its subscribers coming back for more in an age where cord cutting is all the rage.