Sportsnet to produce first NHL game in 4K

Toronto Maple Leafs' Leo Komarov, centre, moves in on Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price as Canadiens' Andrei Markov (79) defends during third period NHL hockey action in Montreal, Saturday, October 24, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

When Rogers hammered out its 12-year, $5.2-billion broadcast and multimedia rights deal with the National Hockey League in 2013, it came with an understanding.

“One of the things we promised the NHL when we did this was that we were going to be leaders in innovation,” says Scott Moore, president, Sportsnet and NHL properties. “4K wasn’t a deal-breaker either way, but they were thrilled that we’re going to be broadcasting [hockey] in the latest and top format.”

The NHL’s first 4K broadcast goes Saturday on Hockey Night in Canada: Toronto Maple Leafs versus Montreal Canadiens. Two historic clubs making a little more history, albeit in the midst of dual losing skids.

Three hundred of the 500 hours of 4K content Rogers plans to broadcast in 2016 will be live sports, television’s PVR-proof jewel. This includes all 81 Toronto Blue Jays home games and 20 NHL games. Of the eight regular-season NHL contests aired in 4K this season, each one will feature the Leafs and/or the Canadiens. The Senators appear in four.

“Where it will be really spectacular is when sports bars, like [Toronto’s] Real Sports, put in 4K projector sets on their big, big screens. No matter where you’re sitting in the bar, you’ll see spectacular shots,” Moore says.

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First and only are adjectives coveted by individual journalists and national broadcasters alike. So although Rogers has a partnership with the NHL and ownership stakes in the Leafs and Blue Jays, Canada’s initial 4K sports broadcast occurred last week, when Rogers raced quickly to bring early adopters the Raptors-Magic game from London, England.

“When the Raptor game became available, I talked to the NBA and Bill Koenig, the president of international distribution there, and they said yes in three seconds,” Moore explains. “My first phone call was to Gary [Bettman] because it was going to be important to them, and my second phone call was to MLB because we were doing so many home Jays games.

“Gary didn’t need any convincing. I just needed to explain it to him — how it was going to affect our broadcast. The most important thing to him and to me is that no matter what we do with the 4K broadcast, it can’t make the regular broadcast worse.”

Sportsnet has committed to more live 4K sports broadcasts (on channel 999) than any other network in North America, second only to the U.K.’s BT Sport worldwide. Moore’s team consulted with BT’s operation, who helped with the Raptors broadcast, and learned from a choice BT made in Europe.

In an effort to deliver a truly native 4K sports viewing experience, BT did not show footage from any specialty cameras that weren’t 4K-equipped. Fans loved the visuals but missed some of the non-4K replay angles they’d grown accustomed to.

Even though net-cams, for example, aren’t yet 4K-ready, Sportsnet will convert that footage so that none of the storytelling is lost in the new broadcast.

4K technology requires four times the bandwidth and delivers four times the pixels of an HD TV, and its popularity is soaring. According to Rogers, 40 per cent of televisions purchased over the Christmas season were 4K TVs. Amazon has tripled its 4K TV sales in the last year.

“You can have a bigger TV in a smaller room without losing the video experience,” boasts Rogers’ Dirk Woessner, president consumer business unit, who’s noticed a spike in demand for the NextBox 4K. “People are buying the equipment. Now, if you’re buying the equipment, you also want the content for it. We’re actually providing the content.”

Although Sportsnet and the NHL have agreed to two 4K playoff broadcasts, Moore can’t guarantee the tech will be showcased during the Stanley Cup Final.

Up until July, there will only be one 4K-enabled TV production module in the country. That mobile will be used for all Blue Jays home dates, so the NHL playoff games will have to fit within travel logistics around the Jays schedule. “We can’t take the module to Calgary or Vancouver within a day,” Moore says.

While the picture improvement from HD to 4K is not as startling as the leap from standard definition to HD, Rogers execs predict consumers will be quicker to hop aboard the new tech — which will only improve once 4K is married with high-dynamic range (HDR) images and their richer colours.

(Quips Moore, “The difference between HD and 4K: In HD, you’ll think I’m completely bald. In 4K, you’ll see all 42 hairs on my head.”)

Rogers Media president Rick Brace jokes that he owns a 3D television but has never watched anything 3D on it. That won’t be the case for 4K, Brace argues, as improved picture quality has a track record of luring viewers.

“I first saw high-definition at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and it took until about 2002 before it really caught on,” Moore says. “I saw my first 4K demo — not even a broadcast — in September and a month later we were announcing the largest commitment to 4K broadcasting in the world at the time. That gives you an idea of the pace of change.”