Rogers, Bell Media court sports lovers with 4K plays

Big broadcast is revving up the premium-pixels engine in the hopes that sports fans will pony up for a better picture.
rogers 4K

Setting itself the goal to be the first North American company to cross the 4K finish line, Rogers has continued to push out a series of firsts in the space. On Tuesday, the broadcaster announced it will be the first company to broadcast an NHL game in 4K, or Ultra HD/UHD as it is also known.

The Leafs-Canadiens game will be broadcast live from the Air Canada Centre on Jan 23 at 7 p.m. It will be the first of 20 NHL games that the broadcaster will bring live to subscribers of its 4K service over newly installed NextBox 4K set top boxes on its 4K channel, 999.  

Meanwhile, as Rogers unveiled its plans, Bell Media also rolled out its 4K announcements. This evening the broadcaster will become the first Canadian sports network to produce a live sports event in 4K. The broadcaster will be airing tonight’s basketball game between the Toronto Raptors and the Boston Celtics on TSN, making it the first of its kind be produced in North America.

The media company has also introduced 4K PVR to customers in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Quebec City for $599. That will be expanded to include all Bell Fibe and Bell Aliant FibreOP customers at the end of February. The PVR will support content from Bell Media, which includes tonight’s game.

TSN’s five feeds will follow that up with 4K broadcasts, available on channel 1399, from the Toronto Raptors, Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators, which was announced today. Bell’s Discovery Canada also started the year by announcing a slate of 4K content, adding that its upcoming Canadian drama Frontier is being shot on the format.

Prior to these announcements, the only other player in the sports-based 4K programming space was  U.K.-based BT Sports, which introduced its 4K channel over a year ago.

Clearly, both Rogers and Bell are looking for an edge in the premium TV market, giving potential subscribers a product and format they can’t get anywhere else. But, for hockey fans, is it enough to draw in customers that might otherwise stick to a GameCentre Live subscription? Or keep those who are thinking about their dropping their cable subscription?

It is early days yet  - only 300 Rogers set-top boxes have been installed in subscriber homes to date. But  with unbundling threatening to encourage cord-cutting and reduce broadcaster’s subscriber base at the same time that younger Canadians are less interested in consuming linear TV, Rogers’ response is to give its core male, sports-centric base an offer they can’t refuse.

Rogers Media president Rick Brace, consumer business president Dirk Woessner and Scott Moore, president, Sportsnet & NHL properties, discussed the company’s plans for the new technology at a media event at Rogers headquarters in Toronto on Monday. They outlined a plan to air 500 hours of 4K content, 300 of which are for sports, including 81 Toronto Blue Jays home games.

On Jan. 14, aiming to build its legacy around 4K, Rogers also hosted the first North American live sports broadcast in 4K, airing the NBA game between the Toronto Raptors and Orlando Magic played in London, U.K. That game was the first publicly available NBA broadcast in the format.

The decision to go live in 4K with that event was made practically overnight while in conversation with BT Sport, which co-aired the program, according to Moore. All three execs said they were motivated to move fast to be the first North American company out of the gates with a 4K broadcast.

It’s not clear how sizeable Roger’s investment in Ultra HD is. The broadcaster has worked to integrate production, content and network updates simultaneously with the aim of a smooth transition for its subscribers. Woessner did say that the updates on the development of the NextBox came out of the company’s standard R&D investment budget. The company’s production partner, Dome Productions (which is 50% owned by Bell Media) is in the process of updating two of its trucks to be 4K-capable production mobiles.

The broadcaster is working to build its 4K portfolio beyond sports as well. Earlier this month, it announced the third season of its original series Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan would also air in the new format. Moving ahead, its plans include more than 100 hours of 4K movies and TV shows on Shomi, the streaming service it co-owns with Shaw.

The success of this strategy depends on a number of things: the early adoption of 4K TV sets, subscribers willingness to pay for and interest in the service, a growing portfolio of 4K content, advertisers developing 4K creative to run alongside marquee sporting events subscribers awareness of the technology and how to access it.

But to get back to the strategy: given Rogers’ multi-billionaire dollar investment to secure the rights to NHL, in addition to its stake in the Blue Jays and the MLSE, the pressure was on to ensure viewers stick with its service.

But looking ahead, in addition to building its subscriber base, the company will also need to bring advertisers on board.

Currently broadcasts on channel 999 will carry the same commercials as HD broadcasts. Even if those commercials are filmed in HD, the broadcaster will simply “upscale” the video quality to match, as close as possible, that of 4K. The company has plans to bring a “founding advertising partner” on board with its 4K content.

Jodi Brown, director, content and marketing at MediaCom, says 4K won’t generate any significant incremental ad revenue this year. Much like the debut of HD, Brown says where Rogers may see an impact is in the number of new subscriptions, as owners of new 4K TVs hunt for programming in that format.

When Lawrence announced the 4K plan in October 2015, he said that he hoped that it would be a “4K Christmas”, anticipating that 40% of all Christmas sales would be of Ultra HD TV sets. With a huge drop in average price of a 4K set over a two year period, retailers like Best Buy are making an aggressive sales pitch to TV buyers. For instance, a 60″ Samsung LED, smart, 3D, 4K Ultra HD TV, is currently retailing – on sale – for $999. Two years ago that set would have been several times more expensive.

Unfortunately, buying 4K TVs doesn’t always mean that subscribers fully understand they also have to access 4K content. Both Brace and Moore spoke to the challenge of awareness, with many subscribers taking a long time to understand the difference between standard and high definition when HD was introduced in 2003. Moore says some subscribers, including his parents, who own HD TVs, still watch programming in standard definition. The company is running an awareness campaign and also has a series of educational pieces about 4K on its website.

How those efforts will fare will be known in time but here is an affiliated challenge. Unlike the launch of HD, which clearly differentiated itself from the less clear and dynamic SD picture, the difference between 4K and HD isn’t that drastic. The improved pixelation of the screen image shows up most obviously on larger screen sizes, creating a more immersive experience. Therefore, while a qualitative difference does exist (colour, sharpness of image, depth of field and so on), most people consuming content on a 55″ or smaller-size screens won’t necessarily pick up on it.

There is always the question of monetization beyond subscribers. From an advertisers point of view, Brown notes, there isn’t enough critical mass of 4K TV owners or of 4K programming for brands to invest in creating 4K commercials.

A founding sponsor would rouse other advertisers’ attention and a Rogers spokesperson says it is currently in talks with a number of advertisers to secure one. That sponsor’s ads would run in both HD and 4K until the 4K channel grows its base. While only 300 set top boxes have currently been installed, the company’s warehouse currently has 5,000 boxes and technicians are making house calls to install the system, working their way through a list of people who show interest in signing up for 4K in the fall.

Clients are keeping an eye out to watch for what happens in 4K, says Brown of the advertising community with which she interacts. Few, though, have as yet shown any interest in investing in advertising using 4K.

Meanwhile producers say they have been moving towards shooting in 4K over the past couple of years. According to Ian Buck, managing director, Notch Video, more clients are asking for 4K video. “But the reality is that even if they’re not asking for 4K we are shooting in it anyways. You can technically shoot and cut a 4K commercial on your phone now.”

About a third of Notch clients ask for their work to be shot on 4K video, says Buck, which costs marginally more than shooting in HD. Back in 2013, Notch’s only 4K client was Samsung.

James Stewart, founder of commercial and creative prodco Geneva Films, says there is a disconnect between the production and broadcasting ends of the business. “We are hearing on the production side that 8K is the new 4K, but broadcasters are still struggling with 2K (HD). Once we get a system that is VOD and we can download in 4K then everything will be in 4K.”

As the size of the market increases and with it the need for content, Brown believes the space may open up for branded content. That could see Rogers Media working with marketers to create custom content for its 4K channels.

Ultimately, how and at what pace things develop depends on viewers adoption of the new tech and their response to the 4K content on offer.

With files from Val Maloney
Updated at 2 p.m. to clarify that tonight’s basketball game on TSN makes Bell the first network in North America to produce a live sports game in 4K.