Can it really be that 10 years has passed since Planet Earth first aired on BBC1? Claiming the primetime slot of 9pm on a cold Sunday in March 2006, it was one of the first series to air in full HD. A runaway hit with audiences across the country, the first five episodes drew an average audience of 11.4 million viewers.
This month saw the programme’s triumphant return after a decade’s hiatus, announcing itself as the BBC’s first ever programme to be shot in the Ultra High Definition, aka, 4K format.
Already three episodes into the six part series, so far viewers have been kept on the edge of their seats as a real life horror film unfurled in front of their eyes (razor snakes, anyone?), or were mesmerized and delighted by the bizarre, pastel coloured spectacle that is flamingos performing their courting dance.
Then there were the grizzly bears enjoying their very own Bare Necessities tree scratching moments, or the times viewers marvelled at the solitary life of a snow leopard – and who wasn’t routing for the unlucky in love swimming sloth? All of course completed by the reassuring, ever reliable voiceover talents of Sir David Attenborough.
The first episode gained 12.26 million viewers, the highest under the current system of viewing figures for a nature documentary, with viewers keen to see footage that literally could not have been filmed 10 years ago.
On top of its 4K credentials, the programme has embraced the most modern technology, using ultra-lightweight and portable design stabilisation technology (a significant step up from previously heavy, cumbersome and expensive cineflex type products or Steadicams), whilst also making good use of camera drones and remote trigger cameras, allowing the filmmakers to capture animals on screen that have never been seen before.
A new generation of high quality camera traps have certainly defined the filming of Planet Earth II, as evidenced by the razor sharp, clear and lifelike images seen in the episodes thus far.
So how can viewers watch the BBC’s first 4K programme in 4K?
Well, here’s the issue: they can’t. Although that’s not to say that they never will be able to. At present, the BBC has no dedicated 4K TV channel in which to broadcast the programme – audiences have had to make do with watching it in HD, but isn’t that so 10 years ago?
Some good news then – if the rumour mill is accurate – is that the BBC has hinted at the possibility of a 4K channel coming to iPlayer. The BBC said: “The BBC does not have a 4K/UHD channel at the moment but it is something that’s currently being investigated for BBC iPlayer.”
“What we now need to work on is how we are going to get [these shows] to the viewer,” he said. “Obviously, as an organisation we are committed to delivery on every platform. But Digital Terrestrial is going to be very difficult. However, we are very much strategically taking an ‘Internet first’ approach. So we see our first offerings with UHD/HDR – and HDR is very important – to be on the iPlayer platform.”
He also added that the BBC will be looking more into exploring object-based audio in future – CE Pro can picture it now: Planet Earth III in 4K and Dolby Atmos/Auro 3D/DTS:X!
The comment that gives CE Pro hope here is the ‘Internet first’ approach mentioned, with Planet Earth II being the perfect programme to showcase 4K in all its UHD glory. Could it be that the 4K version is being saved for a future BBC iPlayer release? After all, 4K content is currently being delivered by BT Sport Ultra HD and Sky Q, while streaming services including Amazon, Netflix and YouTube also offer Ultra HD video.
UPDATE: The BBC has since launched a Planet Earth II 4K HDR trial on iPlayer, but only these TVs are compatible.
If Planet Earth II does arrive on a 4K BBC channel someday, viewers will want to be able to experience this for themselves, meaning they will need to invest in a 4K TV.
So what options are there for this future proofing? CE Pro presents a handful of options that are currently out there, covering different size requirements and budgets to get 4K-hungry fans started, so that by the time the rumoured UHD BBC channel launches, they can be ready.
Panasonic’s 40in 4K Ultra HD TV is an affordable option, available from a number of retailers for under £430. Aside from 4K, key features include a customisable Firefox OS-based home screen, Quad Core processing and Freeview Play.
Featuring 4K, HDR, Freeview Play and Firefox OS, the 50in LED smart TV is available now for £669. The set is Ultra HD Blu-ray-ready, is equipped with local dimming, a 4K 1400 Hz BMR, has three HDMI inputs and an optical output.
Available at a number of retailers for a price ranging between £1,259 and £1,299, the smart 4K Ultra HD HDR 49in LED TV boasts Quantum Dot Display technology, twin Freeview HD and twin Freesat HD, four HDMI inputs, cloud gaming and all the expected smart features.
For those with a little more cash to splash, this smart 4K Ultra HD HDR 55in curved LED TV could be an option, costing around £1,699. Key features include Quantum dot colour to further enhance the colour and brightness, plus, it connects with the Samsung Smart Hub, (allowing access to catch-up services or subscription-based Apps), UHD upscaling technology, access to Netflix and Amazon Prime and four HDMI inputs.
Available for £1,999 at Currys and PC World, this 55in LG TV combines 4K OLED HDR with Dolby Vision for optimal image clarity and depth, throwing in three HDMI inputs and sound design from Harman/Kardon. Plus, LG Smart TVs with Freeview Play allow viewers to access online services such as Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Now TV, and yes, you guessed it, BBC iPlayer and a number of other catch-up services.
Feel you could afford something more? Then this 65in LG OLED TV may be the one for you. Costing around £4,199, this HDR (in fact, it’s Dolby Vision) 4K 3D smart TV also boasts a 40W Harman/Kardon Soundbar stand with Dolby Digital sound, Freeview HD, a Picture-On-Glass design, a WebOS 3.0 Smart platform, 2D and 3D Glasses and comes with a 12-month subscription to Sky Q.
Loewe Bild 7
Loewe’s new flagship TV could be another option, available in 55in and 65in versions for £4,490 for and £6,490, respectively. Supporting 4K Ultra HD and HDR, the Bild 7 is the first in its portfolio to be successfully certified for Dolby Vision. It is also fully compliant with the Ultra HD Premium standard and its OLED panel is custom-made for Loewe by LG.
The Bild 7 also boasts an integrated soundbar, incorporating six high-specification active drive units coupled to 120W amplification, incorporates a 1TB hard disk recorder (expandable to 2TB), and in addition to operating as a built-in Freeview HD PVR for recording and archiving TV programmes, Loewe’s DR+ hard drive also acts as a video server accessible from other Loewe TV sets in a home network.
Loewe’s built-in wireless multi-room functionality enables live TV and audio to be streamed from one Loewe set to another, similar to Sky Q.
Sony Bravia ZD9
For every budget conscious 4K TV, there are always options at the other end of the scale. For those people, there is the Sony Bravia ZD9 range, available in 65in, 75in and 100in options for £4,000, £7,000 and £60,000, respectively (details on where to buy these can be found on the Sony website).
The ZD9 boasts 4K UHD and HDR, as well as Sony’s new 4K HDR Processor X1 Extreme image processor, which is said to offer 40% more real-time image processing than the previous generation.
4K upscaling is also on board thanks to the 4K X-reality Pro technology, while object-based HDR remastering and upscaling is also included, turning dynamic range HD content into glorious 4K HDR images.
The Bravia ZD9 boasts Android TV software, giving users access to Netflix, YouTube and Amazon Instant Video, as well as support for Google Chromecast streaming from an Android or iOS mobile device.
What about 4K Blu-ray?
Should the BBC be saving the 4K Planet Earth II footage for a future 4K Blu-ray release, viewers are going to need a UHD player. Here are a handful of choices that are available now:
Xbox One S
Available for as low as £279, the Xbox One S is the cheapest 4K Blu-ray player currently on the market, undercutting players from the likes of Samsung and Panasonic. Key features include 4K video streaming, support for HDR, upscaling, an integrated power supply, a 2TB hard drive option, support for Apps with 4K and 4K HDR content, including Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and, in the US, Vudu. Another key selling point is its support for all three major 3D audio formats: Dolby Atmos, DTS:X and Auro 3D.
Unveiled earlier this year as the world’s first UHD Blu-ray player, Samsung’s UBD-K8500 4K UHD player is available for around the £299 mark. For that price users will get an array of features, but the most important is the ability to play the new 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray standard. Not only can the Blu-ray player play the higher resolution discs however, users can upscale their 1080p and conventional DVDs. Samsung’s player is also HDR compatible.
The Panasonic DMP-UB700 is available now from a range of retailers for around £399, taking on most of the same features found on the manufacturer’s more expensive DMP-UB900 – such as 60fps playback, HDR support, high-res audio playback (WAV, FLAC, DSD, ALAC) and the ability to stream 4K content – although it doesn’t come with THX certification or 7.1 surround sound. There is a digital optical connection, however.
The DMP-UB700 is Ultra HD Premium certified, features two HDMI outputs to separate audio and video signals and can be used to play back hi-res audio formats such as DSD and ALAC.
For now though, Planet Earth fans have this week’s Deserts episode to look forward to in HD; and in 10 years time, should Planet Earth III brighten up our Sunday evenings once more, 4K channels by then may well be the standard.