Will we see more live 4K programming in 2017?

Last year, DIRECTV became the first television provider in the US to broadcast live, full-time 4K signals. DIRECTV now has three live channels of 4K and a large library of downloadable 4K content. This puts DIRECTV head and shoulders over the rest of the pay-TV market.

But ok, let’s cut the cheerleading for a minute. It’s three channels. I mean, there’s great content on there, especially if you’re a sports fan, love movies or like nature programming. But it’s three channels. I get it. I’m as underwhelmed as you are. Stuff looks great, but what I want is more, more more.

I have to say, the odds are pretty good that we will see a few more 4K channels this year but I don’t know if we’re going to see a flood of them, not quite yet. I think you have to look at the HD transition in the 2000s and realize it’s going to be a lot like that. In 2003 there were -zero- HD channels, and it took three years to build up to where there were about seven national HD channels on DIRECTV. The real turning point was in 2007 when DIRECTV’s new satellites enabled them to add 100 national HD channels and hundreds of local HD channels in a very short period of time. This time, DIRECTV didn’t want to wait on the satellite capacity so they launched the two largest, most powerful communications satellites in history to be ready for 4K.

And then, 4K didn’t happen. Or at least, it hasn’t happened yet.

So you’re wondering, am I really saying that there will only be a handful of 4K channels until 2020 or later? That’s a pretty dark way of looking at things but I have to remind people that there still haven’t been any announcements of live 4K channels from the major networks like ABC/ESPN/Disney, NBC/Universal, Viacom, Discovery, and so forth. You would think that one of these companies planning a live 4K channel would be big news. I also think that there’s going to be a gap between the time that the planning starts and the time the network goes on the air. It could be months or over a year because every aspect of the system needs to be tested, from the 4K studios themselves to the satellite uplinks and downlinks.

And here we are in January with not even an announcement. That makes the prospect of 4K growth in 2017 seem kind of dim.

I think we will see more 4K sporting events. I’m crossing my fingers for some 4K football, but we still have to get through hockey, baseball and basketball first. I don’t see a huge benefit to 4K hockey or basketball, because honestly you can see what’s going on just fine in HD. These are arena sports and they don’t benefit from the added detail 4K gives you in a large stadium.

We know that 4K cameras are already in use in several stadiums, because you can see when they zoom way in to check a play on the field. The picture stays sharp because they’re using 4K cameras and translating down to HD for broadcast. But there’s a lot of work to be done to get ready for 4K uplinks from those stadiums and not every stadium is ready for 4K at all. When you want 4K, you’re going to want it in every stadium… you don’t want to be enjoying 4K baseball one day and drop down to HD the next. That will still take time.

In the meantime, I do expect DIRECTV to have more original programming and movies in 4K, possibly including scripted shows of its own and possibly 4K-remastered programming. When HD first started, the early networks were full of remastered programs like Hogan’s Heroes, which believe it or not was one of the first series to broadcast in HD due to the high quality 35mm film masters used in its initial production in the 1960s. 4K isn’t going to add a lot of detail to old episodes of Streets of San Francisco but with the film stock used in the 1990s and 2000s, if a show was shot on film it will look great in 4K.

That is… when someone finally gets around to putting those programs together. Folks, I’m as anxious as you are. I’d love to tell you it’s going to be a great year for 4K, but I’m forced to say… it’s going to be a good year. Maybe great, depending on what you like to watch. That’s the best it’s going to get.