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Tackling Tech: Advancing 4K TV, NFL Streaming for Fans

After relative silence on 4K UHD for sports, there are signs of change as at least one top broadcaster, tech innovator CBS, is planning to experiment with the higher resolution format (four times the pixels of 1080p HD) for some NFL productions this season.

The experts at CBS, which pioneered live streaming of March Madness around the millennium, and helped develop what is now Intel's Emmy-winning freeD technology for 360-degree replays in the NFL, had said several years ago that 4K was years away. Perhaps it's time has now come.

The 4K format is alive and well in movie theaters, Madden NFL 18, and Apple's newest smartphones, which covers huge screens to screens of handhelds. Once fairly rare and very pricey, 4K commercial cameras have proliferated to the point (and price) where they are viable for sports telecasts.

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Without programming, many thought 4K would be a non-starter for sports. Broadcasters didn't instantly flock to 4K because it was a bright shiny thing, but there has been progress. The format has been used for sports in the U.K., and here in the U.S.A for the PGA (on CBS). And you can't get to the CE department of any shopping club or big- box store's electronics department without tripping over huge 4K UHD sets.

What many fans might not realize is that programming shot in lower-resolution formats can be displayed and viewed on 4K UHD sets using a technology called "upscaling" whereby the smaller number of pixels are made to fill out the 4K UHD screen. It's definitely worth knowing in considering a 1080p TV set replacement.

Break on Through

One additional visible change implemented for this season are an upgrade in camera technology to 4K for Thursday night games and most lead national broadcasts on Sunday afternoons. "We continue to push the high-speed landscape," CBS Sports Executive Producer Howard Bryant told SportsTechie.

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Meanwhile, AT&T's DirecTV has been working to expand the amount of programming it offers in the 4K format.

It seems that the long time Achille's Heel for 4K- a dearth of sports programming that can be viewed in the higher resolution format on 4K UHD TV, isn't as much as a game breaker as it was in 2014, when CBS and others were concerned about the cost of upgrading their cameras and the cost of compliant big screens were priced beyond the reach of too many.

A general rule is that you need a fairly large 4K UHD set to notice the resolution difference. There's little difference to the human eye at about 50-inches in a side-by-side comparison, but the difference is more significant starting with a 55-inch set. 

Could 2017 be the year for 4K TV set purchases to watch more than just movies and other non-sports programming? Stay tuned. It's a situation worth watching, closely.

Sports First FuboTV Advances

In the meantime, there's good news for fans looking for sports-first live streaming services. FuboTV, which I wrote about during the summer, has cut a deal with the NFL to add the league's contest to its growing list. Subscribers get the current sports-loaded lineup plus NFL Network, for $34.99 a month. 

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Getting NFL RedZone, means adding a pay-extra sports package. In June, FuboTV cut a carriage deal with CBS for live and on-demand programming. 

This service, which has its roots in soccer, is all about live sports. FuboTV is worth a look - their channel lineup that is. Yes, others have promised sports-first or all-sports services in recent months but they aren't yet available. Count CBS and ESPN among them.

Leveraging 360-Degree Replays

And with week one of the NFL in the books, is it too-soon to discuss the debut of 360-degree replay systems from Intel that debuted for the first time at 8 venues? No. I have no problem talking about my experience from last Thursday. In the season opener, I counted only one of these immersive replays on the stadium's big board, despite many opportunities in which play had stopped and ad breaks were on for those watching at home.

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The challenge here has been about the amount of time needed to create the Matrix-like, all-angles videos. For fans, it will be a case of seeing is believing, when they finally get to see them. One per 3-hour game is far too low. More is better.

The tech is beyond tried-and-true. Maybe it's the business model that needs some work? As a fan, I don't want to know. I just want more. Staring at a screen which just shows the logos of the two teams playing is weak tea.

Intel's Sports Group now counts 11 NFL team venues as users of the 360-dgree replay cameras and video processing systems; two of which have already hosted Super Bowls and a third - Minnesota's US Bank Stadium - set to host Super Bowl 52. If fans in any of the 11 venues saw more than one or two of these freed-tech powered replays at their games, let me know!

Amazon Primed

Football fans need to take a hard look at Amazon Prime as a source of exclusive sports content, if only to wonder what their game plan is. The company won the exclusive streaming rights to Thursday Night Football games where Twitter had held them last year. The Amazon win came shortly after it aired its original programming series All of Nothing (on the Arizona Cardinals). 

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Just this week, Amazon announced it has acquired the exclusive rights to create a docu-series on University of Michigan college football. You have to pay to watch TNF games on Amazon, even though they are available elsewhere - without an annual subscription fee.

Amazon includes streaming video programming and shipping benefits as part of its subscription service.

The Bottom Line

With cord cutting reaching increasingly higher levels and broadcasters and content owners continue to launch streaming services that offer live and on-demand programming. That's why sports fans -especially fans of America's game - need to keep on the lookout for advances in resolution (4K UHD), channel additions (FuboTV) and Intel's 360-degree freeD replays as items that can tip the scale in favor of cord cutting.

Whether you're watching on a connected TV, a smartphone or other mobile devices, expect to see more advances in the above areas applied to streaming services as opposed to traditional cable TV bundles.

Stay tuned!

Bob Wallace is a technology journalist with over 30 years of experience explaining how new services, apps, consumer electronic devices and video sources are reshaping the wide world of sports. Wallace has specific expertise in explaining developments at the intersection of sports and technology. He's the Founder of Fast Forward Thinking LLC.

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