In what now seems like a very long time ago, but in fact only happens to be fairly recently, over the air broadcast standards were seen to be the absolute gold standard of what should be aimed for when it came to picture quality. When it came to cameras, there were, and still are, strict sets of criteria that they should match before being approved to be used in broadcast television. Particularly in Europe, where EBU standards rule.
Broadcast television, assuming that HD and UHD is being talked about, is split up into different tiers. Where a particular camera falls into those tiers depends on whether it can be used as primary ‘A’ camera, in other words used to produce an entire programme with, used as a ‘B’ camera, or simply used where there is no other option with very limited screen time. There are in fact four tiers for the EBU when it comes to UHD cameras. The main defining factors being the sensor size and type, and importantly the recording codec.
Surprisingly for such an organisation, it has kept up with technology very well, accounting for most of the recent developments. But although this is the case, the cache that the EBU once held amongst most camera users has lost its relevance somewhat. It used to be pretty big news when a camera met certain EBU or BBC approval standards, and we used to hear much more about them. Only recently we were told about how the Panasonic GH5S had been approved as a Tier 1 camera for HD, and tier 2 for UHD. But that was news because such approval had been normally reserved for large shoulder mount cameras costing many times the price.
For the majority of users now, the talking point of camera acceptance is Netflix. Netflix approval is now seen as the gold standard for acceptance, and there are a few reasons for this. All of them demonstrating how traditional over the air broadcasting is slowly, but surely, losing its relevance. It will take a very long time to disappear, but the writing has been on the wall for a while now. Even the BBC recently admitted that it is losing younger viewers en masse to such online services.
But the relevance and influence of Netflix in terms of camera standards is much more than simply its growing viewing figures. Unlike broadcast television, OTT providers are completely flexible in terms of how they embrace new technology. The only limiting factor is internet bandwidth. But as internet connections have become faster, so these online content providers have been able to adapt very quickly to new and emerging technology. In the most recent case this means streaming 4K HDR content directly into viewers homes. Something that traditional broadcasters such as the BBC can only dream of currently. That’s not to say that the BBC are not experimenting with such things. Only last week it streamed a live rugby match in 4K HDR unannounced. But for the moment it is companies like Netflix, Amazon, and even YouTube that have stolen a march on traditional broadcasters.
The fact that Netflix is by far the most ubiquitous streaming service, along with producing its own high quality series content, such as Stranger Things and Lost in Space amongst many others, means that it has an tremendous amount of clout when it comes down to specifying its own quality standards.
If you are going to be sending 4K HDR to viewers on a regular basis, and that is your minimum standard, it only stands to reason that any cameras used to produce such content can meet the requirements easily.
Netflix caused controversy by not accepting the ALEXA XT for Original productions
Of course it goes without saying that such technical requirements have caused, shall we say, some controversy. The most famous of which was the rejection of the Arri ALEXA XT as a primary camera. There were many cries of consternation at this rejection and Netflix were accused of being ridiculous for doing such a thing. After all, a sizeable majority of big feature films are shot using this camera.
This was a storm in a teacup however, since the camera approvals for Netflix mainly applied to their original series, and the Arri ALEXA 65 is very firmly on it, which makes perfect sense. If you are claiming that you are producing and sending 4K to viewers, there would be cries of foul play if it was found out that the productions were made on cameras that could not produce a true 4K picture. It is very easy to see things from Netflix’ point of view in this regard.
There might be some who point out that while the EBU requirements take into account aspects such as spatial aliasing and noise performance at certain luminance levels, that Netflix do not. But we cannot actually be sure what testing goes on behind the scenes at Netflix. In other words, just because those things are not mentioned explicitly in its technical requirements, it does not mean that it hasn't tested or accounted for them. We just don’t know. Given that it is an online streaming service and picture noise and aliasing could create some pretty awkward problems, it would be stunning if it hadn’t.
But the very fact that Netflix is so ubiquitous means that the effect of its camera requirements are wide raching and have filtered through the industry as a whole. If you are investing in camera equipment, particularly as a rental house, you will want to make sure that the gear you hire out is capable of being used for the widest range of production possible. While the standard ALEXA models are still very much in use for features, productions for companies such as Netflix and Amazon are on an upward spiral. You will want your gear to be Netflix approved.
Interestingly, or perhaps not depending on your viewpoint of how technology is progressing, Netflix currently has no plans for 8K or VR standards. Instead focussing its efforts on 4K HDR. This could of course change, and very likely will. Netflix is as I mentioned earlier, is not bound by the same limitations that restricts advancements as broadcasters such as the BBC, and it will want to remain ahead of the technology curve to retain an advantage.
In terms of relevance this means that broadcaster standards such as those by the EBU, while seemingly offering some parity with the Netflix requirements, are becoming less relevant as time goes on. The EBU and BBC, while having standards established for UHD cameras, aren’t actually in a position to regularly have such content beamed into viewers homes. Netflix on the other hand has been doing so for a couple of years, while its traditional broadcast rivals are only just getting round to doing minor online tests.
It will be interesting to see how it all plays out, but it is hard to see the EBU reclaiming the crown head of standards while Netflix, Amazon, and who knows what type of service appears in the future, are all defining online content already.
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