Mark Harrison, BBC: “We are taking 4K very seriously”

Mark Harrison Controller of Production BBC

Mark Harrison
Controller of Production

Scheduled to appear at December’s Digital TV World Summit, Mark Harrison is Controller of Production for BBC North, and in this exclusive interview gives IP&TV a fascinating perspective on how the most prestigious broadcasting company is thinking about 4K/UltraHD.

IP&TV: How is the BBC approaching 4k? How much enthusiasm is there in the corporation for this technology?

Mark Harrison: The BBC is taking 4k very seriously – although my expert colleagues prefer to call it Ultra HD (or UHD), which is less specific to ’4k’ and expresses the trend towards very high resolutions in general. It’s best to think about UHD in two different ways: first as a capture medium (programmes shot in very high resolution formats); and secondly as a distribution medium – transmission or publication of very high resolution media. The former is already happening, with lots of drama, natural history and other high-end programming being shot, and sometimes edited, in UHD or even higher resolutions. The latter is being actively explored by our technologists, but is some way off yet.

What kind of demand do you anticipate for 4K from license payers? Could the technology present difficulties in terms of funding?

I very much doubt we’ll find license-fee payers writing in saying ‘I demand 4k!’. Most consumers have not even heard of such a thing – and would in any case find such an ugly, technical label hard to understand. What audiences expect from the BBC is quality programming. ‘Quality’ can be hard to define, but it means a range of things from the storytelling and presentation to craft standards and picture quality. In the picture quality part of this, ensuring our programmes get through the distribution chain in good shape to the device the consumer is using is as important a focus as the technical detail of how many pixels there are. The financial challenge for a national public service broadcaster like the BBC is how to retain its commitment to universality (serving everyone, wherever they are, and however they consume our output), while remaining at the leading edge of quality.

What impacts could 4K have, in terms of production?

I think this is pretty interesting – and I have to stress mine is very much a personal view. A few years back we were pre-occupied by the creative potential of self-shooting by production staff. The result was a bit of a slip in technical quality, but the storytelling gains made it worth it. Then along came HD. HD was far less forgiving, and to some degree it has made us refocus on picture quality. But it has done more than that. Stunning pictures invite everything else to be stunning – script writing, presenting, special effects. If your programme looks like a Hollywood movie you need everything about it to feel of a similar standard. And remember, UHD is not just about more pixels, it also has the potential for better pixels.  The new standard can deliver much more colour than HD and can run at more than twice the frame rate. That makes genres like Sport look great on big screens; but also makes everything look better on small screens too!

So my prediction is that as picture quality goes on increasing, so will the overall quality of TV. I suspect this could end up with us making a bit less material, maybe for bigger budgets.

And can you foresee any unexpected impacts could it have for the consumer?

I was very struck at the Consumer Electronics Show this year by the fact the manufacturers were not selling their UHD displays on the basis of UHD television content. They were smart enough to know there isn’t any yet! So instead they focused on movies, gaming, on the display of photographs – and on HD television programming that had been ‘up-res-ed’ to UHD. In so doing they are actually inviting consumers to consider seeing their television as less of a television and more as a primary display. It’s almost like the TV becoming the biggest and best computer screen in the house. Once you have accepted a ‘television’ is actually a display – and the discipline of television is separated from the device – it has subtle but profound implications for both consumer and producer.

Finally, what is the creative and commercial potential of 4K?

It’s often pointed out that many consumers have their televisions set up incorrectly. Their ‘HD’ TVs are often not showing HD pictures at all. It’s also pointed out that people are content with very low quality video on the web. So, it is argued, consumers don’t really care about quality as much as manufacturers, technologists and producers like to think. But I think this is a mistake. If you look over the longer term at the evolution of audio-visual material for mass consumption, and the devices on which it is displayed, the trend is only in one direction: higher quality. The relationship between product and quality is now becoming mutually reinforcing: more people want better quality devices, which need more better quality content to display on them. ‘Upgrading’, both of consumer products and content, and ‘extending’ of the range of material than gets displayed on these devices, will only increase. And that’s good news for anyone who loves making creative, and who loves making money.

For more information about the Digital TV World Summit (3-4 December) go here.

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