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Monday, July 22, 2024

From Concept to Reality: HDR Production

John Mailhot, Senior Vice President, Product Management at Imagine Communications.

By John Mailhot, Senior Vice President, Product Management at Imagine Communications

This time last year, there was a strong expectation that by 2024, live HDR production would be poised to take the broadcast industry by storm. This forecast has indeed materialized, with HDR production being used more and more, but with a twist. Within the industry, there has been a common tendency to conflate UHD and HDR — a presumption that live productions would predominately feature UHD with HDR. However, as the broadcast community delves deeper into consumer preferences and factors that drive consumer behaviour, it has become evident that HDR stands out as the driver of consumer sentiment.

HDR’s Differentiating Value

HDR’s impact on picture quality is quite remarkable, easily noticeable to even the most casual of viewers. In contrast, the differential value of UHD resolution isn’t immediately apparent. Even tech-savvy consumers may find themselves checking the stream information to ascertain whether the content is indeed UHD. Furthermore, the costs associated with producing and distributing UHD resolution content continue to be cost-prohibitive for all but the largest events.

As more and more consumers acquire displays that support HDR — and become accustomed to its visual superiority in their digital viewing experiences — the demand for broadcasters to adopt HDR in their live productions continues to increase, a trend that hasn’t been observed with UHD. Consequently, over the last year, we’ve seen that real productions of scale are being delivered in 1080p with HDR, with the industry coalescing on the use of hybrid log-gamma (HLG) for live event production, along with branded perceptual quantizer (PQ) variations for content distribution.

The Rise of the Single-Master HDR Workflow

Even though there’s an increasing demand for HDR among viewers, the vast bulk of the audience is still reached through SDR distribution. As a result, an essential element in HDR production is the ability to produce both HDR and SDR versions with high quality using a single-master workflow. In the past, the absence of such workflows presented a significant obstacle to the widespread adoption of live HDR productions. This scenario started to shift a few years ago, when NBCUniversal pioneered and freely published their single-master workflow for high-profile events.

Over the last year, most broadcasters have implemented variations on this single-master workflow, concentrating on tightly specifying the SDR conversion. As a result, today the majority of large- and medium-sized broadcasters have at least experimented with workflows that support HDR, while simultaneously ensuring that the SDR distribution remains visually excellent. Now they are honing these workflows to cater to events of varying sizes and extending their HDR distribution capability to a wider range of viewers.

Distribution Is Still Limited

Despite broadcasters largely overcoming production hurdles, the delivery of HDR content continues to pose challenges. As we saw last year, streaming platforms such as Amazon Prime Video and AppleTV+ still hold a notable advantage because of their “over-the-top” model. Their edge stems from their capacity to separately stream either HDR or SDR signals to any given viewer (over the internet) efficiently. These streaming services are also equipped to offer a variety of VOD-based HDR content, giving viewers a wide selection to choose from.

In contrast, for cable and satellite services, delivering HDR content to audiences necessitates the use of specialized set-top boxes. And for over-the-air systems, while technologies like ATSC 3.0 and DVB-T2 are capable of supporting 1080p resolution and HDR, they are still in trial phases for these capabilities.

Real-World HDR Production Is Here

Anticipating growth in delivering HDR content, there has been significant investment in producing 1080p HDR, with an increasing number of productions embracing this technology. In the past year, a number of high-profile events took the plunge, such as Amazon Prime Video rolling out HDR streaming for Thursday Night Football. And recently, CBS Sports broadcasted Super Bowl LVIII in both 1080p HDR and 4K HDR via Paramount+, covering not only the game, but also the pregame, halftime, and postgame programming.

Looking ahead, the 2024 Paris Summer Games are expected to mark a significant milestone in live HDR broadcasting, with several world broadcasters planning to incorporate HDR productions to varying extents. France Télévisions, for instance, is gearing up for the games with plans to launch a 4K broadcast service that will showcase original UHD programming with HDR support.

In Summary

Over the last few years, HDR technology has transitioned from the conceptual stages to practical implementation. What was once a highly anticipated trend in the industry is now becoming a reality, with various industry players not just testing HDR, but effectively incorporating it into their live productions. Its adoption has necessitated a focus on operational efficiency and an understanding of the nuances of quality assurance and delivery. This foundational work in HDR has set the stage for its use in the 2024 Paris Summer Games and more this year, where its suitability for the biggest of stages will be on full display.

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