The OB view from France

Catherine Wright
November 24th 2016 at 10:46AM : By

Catherine Wright covers the adoption of new imaging technologies by French broadcasters and the French industry’s plans for 2017

French broadcasters have been testing 4K, HDR and VR in 2016 but have yet to push the button on  big rollouts for live production. Some however getting close to making the switch to 4K for capture and production, and service providers have been investing and upgrading to anticipate future requirements.

On the whole, it’s safe to say that French broadcasters have been taking a slow approach to adopting UHD for capture, production and transmission of live events. Many of them got burnt by investing heavily in 3D technology when it was all the rage and hyped by manufacturers, only to find viewers never really wanted it. And it wasn’t too long ago that they all had to make the switch to HD technology. Most therefore decided to play it safe in 2016 by conducting trials without making a big commitment.

2016 was the year of the Euros. TF1 was one of the broadcasters involved in producing and transmitting UEFA matches in UHD to telco Orange‘s new 4K set-top box, launched in time for the competition. The setup involved 12 of Sony’s HDC-4300 hybrid cameras (pictured below).  “We found it worked well on a technical and editorial level. There were less close-ups and slow-mo shots than with HD, but the images we saw on Orange’s set-top box were a big improvement on the HD ones,” says Olivier Ou Ramdane, TF1’s MD for new business.

But the broadcaster doesn’t say when it will adopt the technology more extensively, notably for capture: “We are working on it and can’t reveal more at the stage. But we think that we have overcome most of the technical barriers. And more and more TV sets and set-top boxes have been acquired by the public,” hinting that it could be quite soon. 




 VR sparks new interest

One of the novelties in 2016 has been VR, particularly as it might relate to live sport. TF1 tested 360° live video with 4K during a France-Russia friendly football match in March 29. The trial enabled the broadcaster to test stitching technology from French start-up VideoStitch, with compression provided by Grenoble-based Keepixo, encoding by Harmonic and global integration from Via Access. The production was supervised by AMP Visual TV, and cloud computing specialist Akamai dealt with transmission. 360° specialists Digital Immersion, based in Paris, provided the 4K 360° camera set-up and one which was not 4K. 

“The test was a success, we tried different set-ups and it was one of the first live transmissions using live 360° 4K technology. We have been working on several proof of concepts since then to test 360° capture with our partners who we feel now master the production aspects. Our roadmap in 2017 is to work on the immersive experience itself and the interactive side of things,” Ou Ramdane describes.

He views VR technology as “becoming mature. There are less technical problems with the cameras but we need to work on how to get people to use it.”

The group also tested HDR during the match. “We post-produced content using the HDR10, Dolby Vision, HLG and Phillips/Technicolor formats. The idea was to spot the difficulties and identify what capabilities needed to be developed. We wanted to compare the different images produced and what their strengths and weaknesses were and the problems for transmission. We also looked at the live production of HDR and the conversion to SDR for our HD SDR antenna,” he describes. 

According to Ou Ramdane, the HLG option worked the best, enabling the broadcaster to work on an end-to-end workflow. “The post production tools for Dolby Vision are not yet available and we had to post produce the end-to-end workflow with a London-based post outfit,” he explains.

So more tests are on the cards in 2017 “depending on opportunities with our partners,” he concludes. The company still needs to test the HDR to SDR aspects, notably on the colour correction front.

The new Millennium 

AMP Visual TV was the service provider involved with TF1 on the Euros. The company used its new Millennium Ultra-HD OB, the Signature 12 (pictured top), launched in June, which included the 12 above-mentioned Sony HDC-4300 cameras. The company also provided a dedicated 4K production and graphics unit. According to François Valadoux, the company’s executive VP and CTO: “We were still using UHD 1 phase 1 technology which in my view does not really make you go ‘Wow, this is really better than HD’. Especially for sport. But we are doing a lot of work inside the 4EVER-2 consortium on UHD phase 2, because with HDR and especially HFR, you can really see the difference. But manufacturers are not there yet, we are still waiting for the cameras.”

The company was also involved in TF1’s 360° trial, and Valadoux is quite enthusiastic about the technology, for which there is an increasing demand, mostly from production companies creating live content for the second screen.

 “In October, we launched a new dedicated unit called 360 Factory, together with Digital Immersion, who we worked with on the TF1 trial. The idea is to meet the demands of broadcasters and production companies for VR on a wider industrial basis.” 

With HDR and especially HFR, you can really see the difference. But manufacturers are not there yet, we are still waiting for the cameras

Canal+ kicks off

Canal+ has decided to progressively go down the 4K route for its live sports coverage in 2017.

“We are a premium broadcaster and bringing the best viewing experience to our public is in our DNA. Many French households have already bought UHD TV sets, and we want to bring them content they can watch on those sets,” confirmed Jean-Christophe Dekeyser, Canal+ head of UHD projects.

The group started commissioning TV drama and film content in 4K about a year and a half ago, and this will be hitting the small screen at the end of the year. The broadcaster also made several 4K tests on sport events, the last one being the Rugby Top 14 final in Barcelona in June, which also employed Dolby Atmos sound. In May this year, Canal+ also launched a 4K premium package available on Orange’s 4K Livebox set-top, which aired the Top 14 final. 

“I can’t say exactly when but we will be bringing more UHD live sports to our subscribers from 2017 on-wards,” says Dekeyser. “We are working with our service provider Euromedia on this, the aim being to not have double production units, one for HD and one for UHD side by side but the same van for both UHD and HD and downscaling from one to the other for our viewers who do not have 4K TV sets.”

In his view, there is no need to wait for HFR:  “I am not convinced that 100fps for capture is such a good idea, we are very happy with a 50fps rate for capture and production.”

The broadcaster is aiming to get a UHD HDR end-to-end production line up and running in 2017. “That is one of our strategic goals,” he agreed.

Pubcaster France Télévisions tested VR during tennis grand slam tournament Roland-Garros, The group, which already pioneered VR tests on last year’s tournament, trialled a more elaborate set-up this year including VideoStitch’s professional standard 4K and 360°camera, the Orah 4i, as well as compression and encoding from another French startup, Firekast. The group also worked with Push-Pull TV, a company creating interactive TV software solutions to test remote control of VR in front of the TV set. The trial also involved Samsung’s Gear VR headset and YouTube Live 360 player, as well as Intel’s Quick Sync encoding technology. According to insiders, the Orah camera was a big improvement on the previous year’s set-up, but some blurring of the images still occurred.

It has also been testing UHD at Roland-Garros with a wide ranging number of partners over the last four years. The novelty in 2016 was the testing of HDR, and notably HDR encoding in real time. The test compared HDR images on Samsung LED and LG OLED TV sets and was conducted using HDR10  and HLG10  formats and compared high dynamic images with low dynamic ones. According to sources at France Télévisions, the results demonstrated a noticeably better image quality but only in good weather conditions.

I am not convinced that 100fps for capture is such a good idea, we are very happy with a 50fps rate for capture and production

Euromedia goes hybrid

Euromedia is France’s largest service provider and, since the end of 2015, it has started ramping up its investment in 4K equipment. “Our broadcast customers increasingly require 4K for capture, even if they switch back to HD for transmission. For the most part, they have not yet decided to massively adopt 4K for capture even if some are on the brink of making that switch. So we upgraded to be able to meet their one off requirements and be ready for when they decide to go for it,” explains Euromedia CTO Gaël Tanguy.

The company has opted for hybrid solutions wherever it can so as to be as fool-proof as possible: it upgraded three OB vans with kit that includes SAM’s Kahuna 9600 switcher, or GVG’s K-Frame switcher which supports SD, HD, 1080 p (level A&B) and 4K environments, as well as the company’s Sirius 800 routers.

“We totally refurbished those vans from scratch,” Tanguy says. The group, which has subsidiaries all across Europe, including CTV and ACS in the UK, has also renewed its broadcast camera fleet by acquiring a large number of Sony HD 2500 and hybrid HDC 4300s, upgradable to 4K, HDR and HFR shooting. The company also launched a new type of multi-functional van at the beginning of the summer, the Nomad (pictured below), which is a compact, smaller van that is HD and 4K compatible and which can work with up to nine cameras. Big investments which it hopes will pay off sooner rather than later.