CES: Comcast Working On More 4K TV Deals

‘We Are Keen On 4K,’ MSO CTO Tony Werner Says

Las Vegas – International CES – Comcast is developing a 4K video app that will debut later this year on new Samsung 4K TV sets, but there’s much more of that sort of thing in the MSO's Ultra HD pipeline.

In addition to Samsung, Comcast is “working with several others” on apps that will allow the MSO to deliver 4K video on-demand directly to the TV over broadband, company executive vice president and chief technology officer Tony Werner said here on a panel dedicated to 4K/Ultra HD.

“We are keen on 4K,” he said.

Although Comcast’s initial foray into 4K will rely on public Internet connections, Werner is not overly concerned about the amount of bandwidth it will require to deliver. “We like bandwidth-intensive applications,” he said. “Bandwidth is our friend, and it’s the business that we’re in.”

Out on the show floor, Comcast and DirecTV are both demonstrating 4K delivery to Samsung’s new-generation 4K TVs, which  use HEVC encoding and have the technical guts to decode Ultra HD video. Mark Francisco, fellow of premises technologies for Comcast Cable, who was here running the demo (see image above), said he expects that Comcast’s VOD 4K streams will require speeds of 15 Mbps to 20 Mbps.

“We’re still dialing that in. The last thing I want to do is be stingy on the bits,” Francisco said.

Although Comcast will start to offer native 4K directly to Samsung smart TVs, Werner said the MSO is working on a next-generation of boxes for its X1 platform that use HEVC and can decode native 4K signals. He said those boxes should be available sometime later this year. Comcast’s current-generation boxes for X1 will be capable of delivering 1080p HD that can be upcoverted by Ultra HD sets.

Werner said Comcast has conducted tests showing that upconverted 1080p video on 4K sets look “far superior” compared to how it looks on standard HD sets.

“Upconverted content absolutely looks better,” agreed Tom Cosgrove, president and CEO of 3net, programer that expects to produce up to 80 hours of Ultra HD content this year.

While that’s a positive that could cause consumers to buy 4K sets before much native 4K content is available, panelists warned that the visual benefits of upconverted HD could represent a double-edged sword.

The concern is that those improvements could give programmers and studios “reason to rest on their laurels” and perhaps slow down the production of native 4K movies and TV shows, Werner said.

“The real killer selling point for 4K is seeing native 4K,” Cosgrove added.

For that reason, it’s important for programmers to produce shows and movies in 4K so those titles can be delivered in that format down the road, said Chris Cookson, president of Sony Pictures Technologies.

As a point of emphasis, he said Sony shot hit series Breaking Bad on 35 millimeter film and originally scanned it for standard HD. It has since been rescanned and post-produced in 4K. Netflix will be offering Breaking Bad in that format sometime later this year.

“The difference between HD and the 4K version was substantial,” Cookson said, adding later that “future-proofing” content for future distribution windows such as syndication offers studios a strong  incentive to produce most of their content in 4K today.

Despite those concerns, Werner believes upconverted HD on 4K will provide a “more seamless migration” than what was witnessed during the move to standard-def to HD. SD video on HD sets looks horrible, he said.

Werner said the ingredients for 4K to take off are coming together. Comcast, he said, has the distribution network to deliver 4K and will soon have access to more end-points that can decode 4K. What’s still lacking is lots of 4K content.

Comcast, he said, has some 4K plans in store for NBCUniversal’s coverage of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. He didn’t say exactly what the operator will offer, but noted that it will attempt  to “stimulate the imagination” about the delivery of sporting events at high frame rates.