Lack of clarity on broadcasting policy

As the parties publish their manifestos in preparation for a general election in the United Kingdom, there is plenty of attention on the broadcast coverage of their campaigns but little mention of the broadcasting policy of whoever will form the government. With the Media Act passed in the dying days of the last government, it may seem that the major work of legislation is done. Yet there are fundamental decisions to be taken on how to continue to fund and deliver universal access to broadcast television services in the coming years and decades.

There is no mention of broadcasting in the Labour manifesto. The only mention in the Conservative manifesto is in relation to backing Welsh broadcasting. The sole mention of media in either is to social media and the Online Safety Act.

The Conservative manifesto does say that it will support the BBC World Service but says of the BBC that it will carefully consider the findings of the Funding Review ahead of the next Royal Charter.

Labour says it will work constructively with the BBC and other public service broadcasters so they continue to inform, educate and entertain people, and support the creative economy by commissioning distinctively British content. It is also critical of globally respected institutions including the BBC, saying that they have undermined soft power, traditionally a source of great strength, and diminished international influence.

Beyond that, there is no reference to the challenge to traditional broadcasting presented by global online players, or to the long-term future of digital terrestrial television.

This has not gone unnoticed by the Broadcast 2040+ campaign to secure the future of free-to-air terrestrial television and radio services, led by transmission network operator Arqiva and a range of lobby groups.

Importance of Broadcast

“While Labour shadow ministers know the value of terrestrial TV to the millions of people to rely on it every day, they have missed an opportunity in their election manifesto to commit to its long-term future,” it said in a statement.

“Many of the most vulnerable in our society rely on terrestrial TV for news, entertainment and to stay connected. For too long ministers have kicked the can down the road. If Labour do form the next government, it is critical that they act swiftly to guarantee the future of broadcast to 2040 and beyond, which is something the vast majority of the British public want.”

Given the many challenges faced by the country, the transmission arrangements for television in ten years may not seem to be the most pressing political issue.

Yet this will be a key consideration for whoever becomes the next minister with responsibility for the portfolio that has previously covered culture, media, and sport.

If pre-election polling is anything to go by, that is unlikely to be the previous incumbent, who was the twelfth secretary of state to occupy this post since 2010.

Mixed picture on 4K sports coverage

The Euro 2024 football tournament is not being produced in 4K and neither was the Champions League Final. Instead, football fans will have to make do with production in high definition with high dynamic range. Meanwhile, major Wimbledon tennis matches will be provided in 4K, as will the entire Olympic Games in Paris, but not everyone will get to see the ultra-high-definition coverage.

EUFA decided to provide its world feed of the Euro 2024 coverage in 1080p high definition with high dynamic range. That is a step down from the previous tournament, which was produced in 4K with high dynamic range.

In the United Kingdom, the rights are shared between the BBC and ITV, neither of which has the capacity to broadcast 4K, apart from through online services like the BBC iPlayer.

Hisense, which is a sponsor of the Euro 2024 games, is promoting them in association with its 4K TVs, including its new Freely models, but the irony is the matches themselves will not be in 4K.

The Champions League Final from Wembley was also produced in 1080p, although it was upscaled to 4K for host broadcaster TNT Sports on its Ultimate channel in the United Kingdom. Since 2015 it had been originated in 4K.

The Euro 2024 will be televised globally in more than 200 territories by over 130 broadcast partners. The hub for this activity is the international broadcast centre in Leipzig, which is connected to the 10 stadia via a dedicated optical fibre network. The standard plan for each match involves 46 cameras, including slow-motion and high-speed cameras.

UEFA International Broadcast Centre

UEFA said that it has carried out extensive high-level benchmark testing with manufacturers and broadcast partners with the aim of ensuring consistency, whilst also maximising the quality of signal when contribution and distribution limitations are factored in. The outcome of these tests led to the conclusion that producing in 1080p50 HDR, a single multi-purpose high-quality format, provides the best base for quality and consistency and offers the best platform for multiple use. It intends to use this format for all future competitions.

Wimbledon Broadcast Services, which took over the role of host broadcaster of the tennis championships in 2018, will continue to provide coverage across 18 courts, with Centre Court produced in 4K UHD with HDR. In the United Kingdom, that will only be available through the BBC iPlayer, with other broadcast coverage available in high definition.

Olympic Broadcasting Services will produce coverage of the Olympic Games in Paris entirely in 4K with HDR and 5.1.4 immersive audio for the first time. There will be over 11,000 hours of output, which is almost double that for the London 2012 Olympics.

The BBC has yet to announce its plans, but any of its 4K coverage is likely to be limited to the BBC iPlayer. Discovery Communications, which has the European rights to the games, is likely to provide ultra-high-definition coverage through Discovery+ and its Eurosport 4K channel, available through Sky.

In France, TDF is rolling out ultra-high-definition transmissions across France. Over half the country can now receive the France 2 channel in UHD and that will reach over 70% of the population in time for the Olympics, for which a further UHD channel, France 3 will be made available.

Some might suggest that high definition is good enough, particularly with the benefit of 1080p50 images rather than interlaced pictures, together with high dynamic range and a wider colour gamut.

For those that have invested in a 4K television, which many homes now have, it is a confusing picture. When you see a proper ultra-high-definition picture, the difference is obvious, despite what many experts might suggest, although it is less clear than the progression from standard to high definition.

It seems that 4K delivery is a luxury that many free-to-air broadcasters cannot afford or justify. Meanwhile, pay television platforms continue to invest in differentiating their services.

German broadcasters test 5G Broadcast

German broadcasters are testing 5G Broadcast services during the Euro 2024 football championship in Germany and the Olympic Games in Paris. Although the signals will be available across a wide area, it will only be possible to receive the live streams on special smartphones. The test will be used to inform possible broader introduction of the mobile broadcast technology.

Four members of ARD, the joint organisation of regional public-service broadcasters in Germany, will participate in the tests. They are BR or Bayerischer Rundfunk in Bavaria, NDR or Norddeutscher Rundfunk in North Germany, RBB or Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, and SWR or Südwestrundfunk in the South West.

The test broadcasts will take place in Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Stuttgart and Halle. In theory the signals will reach around 8 million people, but they can only be received on special smart phones.

Although there have been previous tests of 5B Broadcast, this is the first joint test in a larger broadcaster network in Germany. They are being delivered in cooperation with Media Broadcast, one of the largest service providers in the broadcasting and media industry in Germany.

5G Broadcast is a global standard that can be used to receive live streams directly on future smartphones or tablets. Unlike unicast streams, the same downlink signal can be delivered simultaneously to any number of receivers, just like traditional broadcast television, and can be transmitted on similar UHF frequencies.

5G Broadcast is specifically intended to address the requirements traditional broadcasters with a broadcast network infrastructure and UHF broadcast spectrum assets.

Insights gained from the test will inform any decision on a possible introduction of 5G Broadcast across ARD.

Founded in 1950, ARD is the largest public broadcaster network in the world. It provides a national network, Das Erste, or the First. Programming is provided by its regional members, which operate seven regional networks, collectively known as die Dritten or Third programmes.