Stuart Smitherman, Vivicast’s co-founder and president, talks to TV Real Weekly all about the prospects for 4K and what may spur widespread take-up of the format.
Positioning itself at the intersection of technology and content, Vivicast Media was an early mover in the 4K space. It not only has a growing catalog of high-quality 4K and HDR programming and channels, but 8K is now also in its sights.
TV REAL: How early of a mover was Vivicast in the 4K space, and what initially led you to take up such a dynamic push in this arena?
SMITHERMAN: Vivicast started in 4K seven years ago, and the joke we often used is that we were into 4K before most people could spell it. The strategic reasons for making such a push in the 4K arena was simple. Vivicast has always had an eye to the future of TV viewing and has grown its reputation among our clients and industry peers for being a licensing company that is usually ahead of the curve. We were among the very first to license and represent OTT content for that emerging market, and Vivicast was the first to offer OTT rights for TV channels and offer global OTT rights to U.S. companies and OTT companies outside North America. Although we were one of the companies that licensed 3D early in its life and represented several full networks around the globe, we knew that 3D was not likely to be a long-term strategy for us. But as the buzz was just starting regarding 4K, we wanted to get ahead of the market. We have had success before being ahead of others and believe that this strategy was the correct approach, and we have continued this with HDR and 8K.
TV REAL: Tell us about Vivicast’s bouquet of 4K channels.
SMITHERMAN: The networks that we currently represent are all very different, and we think they bring something new and exciting for the viewers across North America and around the world. While Vivicast Media is presently focusing on the North American market for these channels, they continue to roll out across Europe and Asia, where the take-up of 4K is more prevalent.
With regard to the specific networks, Travelxp in 4K and HDR was the very first travel channel in HDR, and we are proud to represent the network as the programming is genuinely about travel and has no reality TV thrown in that pretends to be travel. Travelxp is shot in a way that gives you the feeling you are not being dictated to as a traveler, but that you are getting the information from an actual tourist who shows and explains the destination in a way that makes you feel as though they understand and care about the viewer. The fact that the channel is in full HLG HDR and is filmed and finished that way makes this channel unique; as there is no content that has been up-scaled from SDR, it truly makes the picture quality pop and the colors look real. The channel is growing all over the world, and in North America is already being offered by TELUS in Canada as well as several U.S. cable companies and is pleased to have just finalized an agreement with one of the United States’ bigger operators, RCN.
C4K360 is a channel that, although designed originally for millennials, has expanded its appeal for all demographics and covers some very fashionable and watchable genres such as gaming, lifestyle, festivals and eSports, to name just a few. The channel also boasts VR, allowing the viewer to scan a QR code from the screen to their portable device and enjoy many of the events in 360 degrees. C4K360 has grown across multiple operators around the world and has several deployments in the U.S. The vast majority of the programming is original and produced by the channel itself. In 2019, the channel will start to offer the HDR experience using HLG HDR.
Nature Relaxation 4K channel does exactly what the name suggests and brings the beauty and pictorial elegance of nature and music that is designed for the viewer to relax and unwind to. The camera work and the way that the channel is scheduled means that it can be on the viewer’s TV for a few minutes or, as is more common, for hours. The intent and execution of the scenes transfer the viewer from inside the home to some of the most spectacular and vivid landscapes from around the world. Owned by Stingray, the channel is also known in other parts of the world as the Ambiance channel. It is likely in 2019 we will see a name change here in the U.S.
4KUniverse is a general entertainment channel that is now available in full 4K HDR and combines everything that viewers expect from a GE channel—movies, series, kids’ [programming] and documentaries, etc. The channel is from the U.S. but contains content in English from producers around the globe. The programming meets family viewing requirements with a worldwide appeal. 4KUniverse has a number of cable companies in the U.S. and Europe currently offering the channel to their subscribers.
TV REAL: Are you able to source a good supply of 4K content from the international market or is there still a need for more 4K production?
SMITHERMAN: As a licensor of 4K content worldwide, Vivicast Media has seen a significant increase in the amount of content that is shot and available in 4K over the last 12 to 24 months. At the same time, I think that although we have seen huge leaps in 4K content availability there is always going to be a need for more 4K productions. We are going to see 4K continue to grow, and 2019 will be a year when more channels enter the market as viewer awareness of 4K and demand for 4K content continues to escalate.
TV REAL: How much 4K content is in the Vivicast catalog for distribution and across which genres?
SMITHERMAN: Vivicast is not really like other licensing companies as we keep very little archive of 4K content, as most of the content we supply we do on a bespoke basis. Simply put, we try to acquire the different genres and types of content that our buyers are looking for as their needs change rather than keep offering the same content to everyone and seeing what works. With 4K specifically, we are dealing with limited buyers and unlike HD—where a catalog is far more important to meet the needs of multiple buyers who are looking for every genre—4K has, to date, been very targeted.
We work with companies from all over the world as a licensor and are pleased to represent a number of producers and production companies that have worked with us for years and entrust us in representing their new and exciting content. As 4K has started to evolve, it’s tough to say that one genre or another has a distinct benefit being in 4K. Seven years ago, when 4K was emerging as a format, it was very similar to the early days of HD, where landscapes and sport were at the top of everyone’s wish list, followed by live sport content. Today, sport and specifically live sports events are the dominant requirements, but series, documentaries, alternative sport and drama are becoming prevalent as the 4K format becomes more mainstream.
TV REAL: Which markets are buying the most 4K programming at present?
SMITHERMAN: Other parts of the world are currently further ahead than the U.S. in 4K broadcasting. Major broadcasters in Europe, Eastern Europe, parts of Asia and Canada are now actively buying 4K and, in some instances, 8K content. DTH companies around the world still seem to be among the major players in the 4K market, likely due to their ability to handle the larger file sizes, and they are not reliant by fixed line and cable capacity issues.
TV REAL: What are the challenges that 4K content (and channels) still face in today’s marketplace?
SMITHERMAN: There are still many challenges when it comes to 4K content and especially when HDR is added—I could probably write a whole book on the subject, but here are a few of the major challenges that remain. Starting with a positive for 4K, TVs that are 4K- and HDR-ready are being sold across North America at breakneck speed. However, it would be entirely fair to say that in the early days there was limited content being produced in this format and the usual suppliers of content to the end user, the cable companies, were not aware of some of the technical difficulties and were behind the eight ball in deploying the required technology. Limited set-top boxes that could play 4K were slow to enter the North American market and, to an extent, that remains a slight challenge today. If the set-top boxes are not deployed, then even if there were millions of hours of 4K content available, the technology did not allow the end users to see it.
Outside of Netflix, who were early adopters of 4K, the traditional MSOs were reluctant to offer 4K as they believed there was very limited content, and these same companies were even more reluctant to deploy set-top boxes as they did not think there was the viewership for the format. Today, there is a huge amount of available 4K content, but not enough people in our industry until recently were aware of this. Now that we know content and channels are available in 4K and that there are the viewers with the TVs that want to see the format, the tide is turning.
One of the other challenges is the format war for HDR; it reminds me of the Betamax versus VHS days. There remains a need to standardize the format and, hopefully this year, we will see further strides being made to achieve this.
Now I think the biggest challenge that has held back the mass take-up of 4K content so far is consumer awareness. TV manufacturers have done a stellar job of selling and marketing the TVs, but when most people buy the TV they are unaware of what they need to do to get 4K content playing on their screens. This is very much a chicken and egg situation; if the content is not easily made available then only a few will have the patience to seek it out, and if only a small percentage of the population is seeking the content then why would an MSO feel they need to deliver it! With more MSOs (like TELUS and RCN) realizing that they need to deliver the 4K experience to their viewers, 2019 should see others following suit and, as if by magic, 4K appears everywhere.
The final challenge in the U.S. to the wide adoption of 4K content really lies at the feet of the major U.S. networks. I have spoken and written in the past about why the majors have not, to date, made their 4K content widely available to the MSOs and how they are more driven to have a direct relationship with the consumer than to give the MSOs something new that keeps them tied to the cable companies—so probably no point in going into a whole lot more detail on that subject again.
For all within the industry that still think there is none or very little 4K content being shot by the big networks, this is seriously not the case. The big networks have been and continue to commission and shoot a lot of their shows in 4K. Indeed, before the publicized exodus by many from Netflix, you were able to watch some of their syndicated shows on that platform in 4K and often 4K HDR. I do not purport to have a crystal ball, but I do think that 2019 will see one of the larger network groups announce and possibly deliver a channel in 4K and HDR. If we are all lucky, it might not be a reality TV channel, as seeing reality in 4K HDR might be a little too lifelike for even the most enthusiastic viewer!