The Super Bowl is this Sunday, and while I will be busy calling loved ones during the game to deeply irritate them, you may actually be watching and perhaps you might be excited that the game will be streaming in 4K and HDR (depending on your TV provider). But the 4K is fake 4K, and, according to Digital Trend’s interview with one of the men producing the Bowl, there’s a good reason for that.
Super Bowl LIV (54 if you don’t read Roman numerals) will be the first Super Bowl broadcast in 4K, and the first Super Bowl broadcast in HDR, but it won’t be the first sporting event broadcast in either 4K or HDR. Fox has been testing 4K HDR broadcasts since last year, and multiple NFL and MLB games have already been broadcast.
But the Super Bowl is the big one. Just over 100 million people tuned in last year. An average game gets only a fraction of that kind of audience. Thus the Super Bowl will be a big test for Fox’s 4K HDR broadcasting apparatus.
But what Fox has been broadcasting, and will be broadcasting on Super Bowl Sunday, isn’t 4K. Instead, it will be a 1080p HDR broadcast upscaled to 4K.
The reason is that 4K is still really, really data intensive. A 4K video is often twice the size of a 1080p video. It’s full of twice as much data which means storage drives need to be twice as big. It also means data pipelines need to be bigger, and processors need to be faster.
That’s pretty easy to do if you’re handling a single 4K stream. But the Super Bowl broadcast will have to handle data coming from a hundred different sources, from cameras on the field, to drones, to big broadcast cameras pointed at the commentators.
“When we’re doing a football game that is somewhere north of 100 cameras, there’s no possible way we can do this in 4K,” Michael Drazin, a broadcast engineering consultant working for Fox, told Digital Trends.
Drazin’s explanation is the same one Mike Davies, SVP of field operations for Fox Sports, gave the Verge last year. “A lot of the broadcast equipment that does specialty things, like super-slow-motion and replay and those types of things, are technically possible in 4K,” he said in an interview ahead of Fox’s first big 4K HDR football game. “But at the volume that we have for a Thursday Night Football game, which is upwards of 40 cameras, you just can’t pack that in yet in terms of a 4K broadcast.”
Instead, nearly all the cameras will shoot in 1080p HDR. A few cameras will shoot in 4K and 8K, giving the broadcast’s directors the ability to crop and zoom in and without needing a big zoom lens. Then it will all be converted to a 4K HDR stream for 4K broadcasts, and a 720p SDR stream for terrestrial channel broadcasts.
So if you tune in with an antenna you’ll get the normal 720p broadcast. For a 4K broadcast you’ll need to have a 4K HDR-capable cable box. You’ll have to check with your local TV provider to see if they’ll be putting out a 4K stream. According to Consumer Reports Altice/Optimum, Comcast, DirecTV, and Verizon FiOS have all promised 4K streams for at least some customers.
Remember 4K streams require a lot of data to get a sharp and clear picture, so if you live in the middle of nowhere and struggle with reception currently you’ll almost certainly be out of luck.
If you have exceptional internet speeds you should also be able to stream. Fubo TV has promised a 4K stream, and Fox will be streaming for at least the Fox Sports and Fox Now apps.
As Consumer Reports has also noted there will be one challenge for people hoping to appreciate the game in HDR. Depending on the TV or stream provider the game will be streaming in either HDR10 or HLG. Currently all TVs that support HDR support HDR10, but HLG, an HDR format developed by the BBC and NHK specifically for television broadcasts, doesn’t have quite as wide support in television sets.
If you’re streaming via an app it will likely be HDR10, so you’ll be fine. However most feeds coming through your cable or satellite box will be HLG, so definitely double check before you sit down.
As for Roku users hoping to stream the Super Bowl. You’ll want to invest in Fubo TV, or another streaming TV provider because the Fox apps are all being pulled from Roku devices and won’t return until Fox and Roku strike a deal.