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Volume 21 No. 2
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Networks push further into 4K

Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.

Sports networks are in the early stages of testing 4K technology, the next generation of high-definition video touting picture resolution four times greater than HD televisions at home.

Both ESPN and NBC used 4K systems for their respective coverage of the NBA and Stanley Cup finals, and Showtime has used it for boxing.

For basketball, ESPN used the technology as an in-game broadcast tool, and it is enthused about the initial results, said Tim Corrigan, the network’s senior coordinating producer.

ESPN’s test came at the same time the network announced it was dropping its 3-D channel because of consumers’ limited interest.

“There is still some R&D on our end to determine where the most valuable angles can be to best utilize the technology,” Corrigan said. “One of the great things about it is the ability to zoom in and maintain clarity.”

The question remains whether ESPN will eventually introduce a 4K channel. “I would never comment on that yet because I think we’re still learning the value of what it could mean to our broadcasts [and] how we would integrate it into our shows,” Corrigan said.

The technology, named for 4K’s 4 million pixels of horizontal resolution, is going through the same growing pains that HD experienced when it first hit the market 15 years ago. To this point, 4K televisions are too expensive for most consumers, and it will take several years before broadcast standards are developed for the system, said Lee Berke, a sports media consultant.

Experts say 80-inch screens are needed to fully grasp the improved picture, and Sony’s 84-inch 4K television, for example, costs $25,000. Its 65-inch version goes for $7,000.

But 4K has a distinct advantage over 3-D because viewers do not have to wear special glasses and in general there are no headaches or motion sickness tied to the technology, Berke said. He recently experienced 4K technology at a cable television trade show.

“This could be the future of live television and the next generation of video screens in arenas and stadiums,” he said.

For the NBA Finals, ESPN set up two stand-alone cameras during Games 3, 4 and 5 at AT&T Center, opposite 38 regular HD cameras stationed on the other side of the court. The unmanned 4K cameras each focused on one half of the court and recorded the game from a reverse-angle perspective, said Steve Hellmuth, NBA Entertainment’s executive vice president of operations and technology. Both units were digital cinema cameras with some limitations, because manufacturers have not made 4K cameras customized for sports with the longer lenses network directors expect for quality production, Hellmuth said.

What 4K brought to the Finals was the ability to produce a much crisper image on close-ups. Regular HD pictures can lose focus as the camera zooms in on sports action.

“We can zoom in right now on basically any camera we have, but as you get in closer, the picture loses clarity, and that’s not what any of us want,” Corrigan said.

Using a cutting-edge replay device called Dreamcatcher as part of the 4K test, the network could zoom in from the reverse angle and essentially “cut out” the picture it wanted to use and send it as an HD replay to the production truck, Hellmuth said.

The 4K camera views were used twice on air during ABC’s broadcasts in San Antonio: once for a replay and a second time as a “teaching tool” by analyst Jeff Van Gundy in a game package, Corrigan said.

“Ultimately, it’s another tool to use in the documentation of events to make sure we get things right,” he said. “For a championship-level event, having the best information for the viewer, the officials and everyone else involved in making the calls … that’s where it can be valuable.”