BT Sport is just over three years old, but in that short time, it has become a trailblazer for sports broadcasters, first by launching the UK’s first Ultra HD (4K) channel and now by hosting the world’s first Live Ultra HD/Dolby Atmos broadcast.
We went behind the scenes when Manchester United played Fenerbahce at Old Trafford to discover the technology that goes into a live sports broadcast. Check it out in the video below.
Jamie Hindhaugh, BT TV’s Chief Operating Officer, is the man behind many of BT Sport’s technical innovations. He told us how important it was that as a newcomer, BT Sport was the first channel to launch in Ultra HD.
“In sports broadcasting innovation is key to driving credibility,” he says.
“As a new start-up you want to really come out punching and show you are up with everyone else. 4K was emerging technology we could see the value it could bring to the customer - one of our mantras from the beginning was bringing people closer to the action.”
Ultra HD, also known as UHD or 4K, has four times as much detail as High Definition TV, which means that viewers feel much more immersed in the events they are watching.
“You get a much more immersive feeling - you are there,” Hindhaugh explains.
“If you have a look at crowd shots you can pick out every single individual in it. If you watch a Premier League game in HD you can’t tell it’s raining, but in 4K you can virtually see every raindrop.
“We broadcast hockey and squash in it, both fast-moving sports. If you watch squash - even in HD - you can’t always see the ball. What 4K does is to enable that extra clarity that brings you those vivid pictures.”
Hindhaugh believes pictures are just part of the viewing experience – the other crucial area is sound, which many people overlook.
“Believe it or not, sound increases viewing quality by 60%, so it’s a really important factor, but sound has sort of become the forgotten medium.”
With this in mind, BT Sport is set to be the first UK broadcaster to launch Dolby Atmos sound. Dolby Atmos is an audio format that takes the traditional home theatre 5.1 (or 7.1) setup a step further. Sound can be mixed across channels and becomes an ‘audio object’ moving around so the viewer feels right at the heart of the action.
Hindhaugh’s belief that better sound gives the impression of better viewing quality was backed up by positive reaction to the world’s first live 4K/Dolby Atmos broadcast – at September’s International Broadcasting Convention in Amsterdam - of the Liverpool vs Leicester City Premier League match.
“I had broadcasters there from around the world commenting they had never seen such good 4K picture. It was because the sound just enhanced that visual experience,” said Hindhaugh.
A breakout technology of 2016 has been virtual reality, and in September BT Sport broadcast the Chelsea-Arsenal Premier League match in virtual reality in EE stores. Football fans could go into stores and, using a VR headset, choose the camera angle to get a 360/180 viewing experience.
Having set so many technological firsts, what can we expect from BT Sport in the future?
“We’re constantly looking not at what we can do because we can, but at how we can enhance our coverage to give our audience the best experience,” Hindhaugh explains.
“We’re looking at how Augmented Reality continues to build using our cricket coverage…. VR we didn’t just do as a one-off trial, we’ve got big plans for that and how that integrates into our portfolio of channels.
“We did the world’s largest outside broadcast with HDR with the World Rally Championships a few weeks ago. HDR in a live sporting event is really difficult - we took a lot of learnings from that.
HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, which means pictures have a wide range of colours and contrast, with brighter whites and deeper blacks.
Hindhaugh credits some of BT Sport’s success to its willingness to work with partners like Sony and Dolby to share content and engineering capability.
“When you bring the strengths of those sort of partnerships together then you will benefit and you will learn,” he says.
“What technology is doing is giving audiences and fans the chance to get closer to the action and feel like they’re at the game even though they are not, which is critical for us.
“Sport viewing is a live, mass-experience event. It’s still the reason you have the big telly in your front room. To be able to give people that feeling of quality and immersiveness, I think, is critical.”
Manchester United take on Feyenoord tonight in the Europa League. Watch live on BTSport.com from 7.30pm. Find out more.