Right HDR Strategies Can Open Doors to Differentiation Among Streaming Providers

The highly competitive streaming video landscape is prompting executives in the over-the-top (OTT) video streaming market to explore features and capabilities that drive customer retention and greater audience engagement.

High Dynamic Range (HDR) is a technology that falls into this category of emerging solutions as it gains more attention from consumers and the industry, according to Nick Mitchell, media solutions consultant for InterDigital, in an interview for journalists.

HDR takes images streamed to end-user devices — such as TVs, tablets, and mobile phones — to an entirely new level. Most mid-range and high-end viewing platforms support HDR. The technology elevates the consumer experience by allowing viewers to see brighter highlights, better contrast, and deeper, more realistic colors. A rapidly growing number of new movies and episodic programs are being produced in HDR while major live sporting events are increasingly captured using HDR cameras.

The main challenge facing streaming providers is that SDR and HDR content are often commingled in their operations to support legacy content libraries and SDR advertising material.

“There has been a significant increase in the amount of HDR content now available for streaming. This is good news because HDR provides an undeniably enhanced viewing experience consumers have come to appreciate and expect,” Mitchell said. “The trick for the streaming industry revolves around seamlessly integrating a wide array of SDR and HDR content and delivering the best possible experience to the installed base of devices that only support SDR while simultaneously addressing the rapidly growing HDR market.”

Meeting this expectation in a technically efficient and cost-effective manner is becoming increasingly important as OTT providers ramp up subscription costs and others pursue ad-supported business models. HDR, says Mitchell, will play a significant role in helping consumers justify increased subscription costs or support consumers’ willingness to tolerate commercial interruptions. One key to elevating the attractiveness of commercial supported business models will be to deliver advertising content in high quality HDR.

Setting the stage for the HDR streaming era

After a pandemic-fueled spurt of growth that brought over 215 million viewers to video streaming services in 2021, providers have struggled to hold onto their base as the overall market contracted to approximately 203 million in 2022, according to analysts at Statista. While demand appears to be slowly rebounding, analysts do not expect the market to recapture its 2021 highs until 2026 or early 2027.

“As a result, the video streaming service provider market is among the most competitive entertainment technology segments, prompting leaders to seek ways to control costs while introducing new compelling viewing experiences,” he said.

It is in this context that a technologically sophisticated approach to delivering HDR while streaming content to the still-large installed base of standard-dynamic range (SDR) devices is emerging as a compelling solution for video streaming providers.

“When consumers see HDR content, they simply can’t deny that what they are looking at is better,” Mitchell said. “At a time when streaming service providers are beginning to raise subscription prices or explore ad-supported business models, meeting consumer expectations for high-quality services must be a priority.”

Strategies for meeting demand for HDR

Two key questions facing the video streaming market revolve around effectively delivering HDR to consumers while supporting the significant presence of SDR-only devices still in the market and leveraging legacy libraries of SDR content.

“Even though HDR has become a baseline requirement for content creators and consumers, many video streaming providers must determine what to do with their legacy SDR content while ensuring that they serve viewers the best possible picture quality regardless of whether their devices support HDR or SDR. Given the contraction that occurred from 2021 to 2022, every subscriber counts. Leaders in the sector must, therefore, create a roadmap that develops the full potential of HDR while serving all current viewers,” he said.

For video streaming providers with large SDR libraries, this means determining how to convert the content to HDR in an effective manner while preserving original creative intent.

“There are two ways this can be accomplished,” Mitchell said. “The first is to go through SDR files manually and spend hundreds — if not thousands — of hours converting SDR content to HDR. The second is to figure out how to harness intelligent technologies and dynamic workflows to perform the conversion automatically. The second approach is the only scalable and economically viable strategy.”

Automatic conversion of SDR to HDR — and back to SDR if necessary — is one of the distinguishing features of Advanced HDR by Technicolor, a collaboration between Philips, InterDigital and Technicolor. It is a critical capability for video streaming service providers with legacy libraries who want to meet the visual expectations of their viewers.

“At last year’s NAB 2023 conference in Las Vegas, Cinnafilm — which provides award-winning video and audio processing solutions for standards conversions — demonstrated how Advanced HDR by Technicolor has been integrated into its well-established PixelStrings offering to execute high-quality, yet cost-effective, SDR to HDR conversions,” Mitchell said.

Single workflow and distribution strategy for HDR and SDR streaming

Once files are converted, streaming providers’ next major consideration is determining how best to manage and distribute HDR and SDR content. The most significant peril to avoid, warns Mitchell, is managing these content categories separately.

“That is precisely the problem statement we wanted to address when we developed Advanced HDR by Technicolor. Indeed, our focus on this issue has prompted us to zig while the rest of the industry zagged. Here is what I mean. Until Advanced HDR by Technicolor, all efforts to develop HDR formats worked with static look-up tables (known as ‘static LUTs’). Separate workflows and distributions were required when working with HDR and SDR content,” he said.

The Advanced HDR by Technicolor team determined that it would be more effective over the long run to leverage intelligent meta-data technology attached to SDR content for conversion to HDR when the receiving device can display HDR.

“As a result, video streaming providers do not have to allocate extra space to their storage. The meta-data strategy employed by Advanced HDR by Technicolor also means that video streaming providers do not have to support separate distribution streams for their SDR and HDR content,” Mitchell said.

Further enhancing the efficiency of content distribution, Advanced HDR by Technicolor is uniquely able to deliver accurate HDR video with 8-bit AVC, as well as HEVC and VVC using 10-bit pixels for both high definition and ultra-high definition resolution.