The Super Bowl is almost here, and this year — for the first time ever — you’ll be able to watch and stream it in 4K and HDR. It’s the culmination of the work Fox has been putting in earlier this season, which saw the first 4K broadcasts of NFL games in the US for Thursday Night Football.
Fox’s plan is to take that Thursday night experience and expand on it for Super Bowl LIV, though. In addition to broadcasting just the game, as it had for Thursday Night Football, the entirety of the Super Bowl broadcast will be in (upscaled) 4K and HDR. That means that in addition to the actual game, the star-studded halftime show with Shakira and Jennifer Lopez will be in 4K HDR, as will all the pregame and postgame coverage. Even the commercials are going to be upscaled to match the rest of the broadcast.
According to Mike Davies, SVP of field operations for Fox Sports, “We’re definitely riding the rails of what we did for Thursday Night Football in terms of the game, you know, just on a bigger scale. I mean, we have at least three times the cameras that we had, for Thursday Night Football, and notably, we’re also going to be doing our shoulder programming in UHD as well.”
At its core, the 4K HDR broadcasts shouldn’t be that much of a technical change. But as Davies explained to The Verge last year, the devil is in the details. The change to 4K is actually the easier part of the process, according to Davies, since the NFL production pipeline, with its dozens of cameras and specialty slow-motion equipment, still can’t film an entire game in 4K. So it films everything in 1080p and HDR, then upscales it to 4K.
The real benefits from the enhanced broadcast will come from the improved color space. But earlier broadcasts were plagued by issues with HDR compatibility and last-minute changes — issues that Fox is confident it’s sorted out for the broadcast of the biggest football game of the year.
So for the Super Bowl, Fox is doing things differently. The game will still be filmed in the HLG HDR format that’s used almost exclusively for live events — as Steven Thorpe, VP of video platforms for Fox Sports, tells The Verge, “From a production perspective, HLG is really the only way technically today to do live HDR through a live sports production workflow.” And that HLG stream will still be used for traditional broadcasts on DirecTV, Dish, Altice Optimum, Verizon Fios, Xfinity, and FuboTV.
But for streaming devices — which saw issues during the earlier regular season game with HDR due to HLG and HDR10 spec problems, Fox is promising that the online stream will offer nearly identical performance as the broadcast stream by converting the base HLG stream into HDR10 in real time.
“Our goal is to have them [the HLG and converted HDR 10 streams] be very similar,” explains Thorpe. “Of course, if you get somebody who looks at color for a living, I’m sure that they could pick out a few little minor differences. But our goal is to make it for consumers that they should really be an equal experience.”
That leaves just the final piece of the puzzle: making sure everything works. The Super Bowl is one of the most watched games of the year, and the huge crush of viewers has caused plenty of issues in the past for normal HD video streams, to say nothing of the added load of carrying 4K HDR footage to millions of households.
The usual issues will still be there — namely, lag behind the actual game on the field, as Thrope explained in an interview with CNET: ”I would expect users to see about 12 second to 1 minute of latency [behind the venue] depending on a variety of factors including: device type, network, and other conditions.” (Traditional broadcasts tend to have far shorter delays of around five seconds.)
But Fox’s team doesn’t seem too concerned about the stream going down at a critical moment. As Thorpe explains, Fox’s system has been through some big tests before. “It’s the same ecosystem that’s done the World Series. It’s the same system that did the Women’s World Cup last summer. It’s the same system that did every single NFL game on Fox this past fall. And so from a core system [perspective], we’ve actually been testing, every single day, for a number of months.”
“The Super Bowl is really kind of in a league of its own. And every year, it sets kind of a new high watermark for digital streaming. And so, what our team has done is — we’re really layering in extra capacity and so we’re actually partnering with a number of CDNs (content delivery networks) across the country. And we’ve actually procured a pretty significant chunk of the internet, to make sure that we have enough capacity to deliver content to everybody who wants to watch it.”
Update January 31st, 11:50am ET: Updated post with additional comments from Thrope regarding stream latency from an interview with CNET.