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November 29, 2021

Creating an 8K Channel “Not That Hard” Says TCL

On November 16, 2021, TCL North America announced a new 8K streaming service enabled on their Roku-powered 8K TVs with content from The Explorers. We spoke with executives at TCL and The Explorers to learn more about what it took to deliver this 8k channel [Note, we’ll investigate who The Explorers are in detail in a dedicated article in the next issue, based on an interview with their co-founder and CEO]. A key takeaway from our discussion with TCL was that: “It was pretty easy to create this 8K streaming service,” as Aaron Dew, Director of Product Development at TCL North America, told us.

“We began this effort with The Explorers after we were introduced to them in the 8K Association,” continued Dew. “Once we got to know them, we decided to start a project to use their amazing native 8K content on our 8K TVs, which were still in development at the time. These TVs were planned to use the Roku platform, so we worked with them as well to develop the solution.”

Image TCL

On the content side, The Explorers already had a library of over 40 hours of 8K content focused on the natural and human heritage of the world that they had been streaming to Samsung 8K TVs via a Samsung-specific app. For the TCL project, more content was needed, so they have been busy mastering more 8K content that had been shot but not yet finished. Two and a half hours of new content are added per month, and at least as much existing content is re-encoded in AV1 for the new project each month. This codec was chosen over HEVC for its lower bandwidth and especially its lower decoding processing requirements, more suitable for TV set hardware. The Explorers CTO, Gilles Dassac, pointed out that the advantages AV1 currently has over HEVC also had a downside in requiring about 10x more processing for the original encoding. This expensive overhead is gradually reducing. Their internal Open-Source-based encoding workflow is down from the initial four hours, when they started, to just over one hour for each minute of 8K content. As sustainability is a growing issue in the industry, in the short term, it would seem to be greener to encode blockbuster content with AV1 and long-tail content in HEVC. The 8K content is currently encoded at 60Mbps at 30fps with the libaom-av1 multi-pass encoder. Static High Dynamic Range is used for the moment with HDR10, and the Explorers are looking into dynamic metadata solutions for a future upgrade.

TCL said that only the Series 6 TVs offered in North America would have access to The Explorers content. The 8K TVs are offered in 65” and 75” screen sizes. Critical to access the 8K content is internal TV support for decoding of AV1 content. “Support for AV1 decoding was already planned to augment HEVC 8K decoding, so it was important for us to try to bring new 8K content to our customers as well,” said Dew. So, to enable access to the 8K content from The Explorers, a channel or app needed to be available in the Roku store for content playback.

From Roku’s perspective, The Explorers already had a channel in the Roku store, but it was not configured to support 8K playback. This task was the responsibility of Roku. What did they have to do? We were told that it was mainly about adding support for the chosen 8K codec for delivery: AV1.

Earlier this year, Roku and Google had a public fight over Google’s insistence that Roku hardware support the new AV1 codec. This clash and other issues resulted in Roku removing the YouTube TV app from its devices. Google then implemented a fix to allow access to YouTube TV via the separate main YouTube app. But the situation remains volatile with Roku’s license to the YouTube app set to expire on December 9, 2021.

Even if it comes to this, it should not impact the streaming of the 8K Content from The Explorers. Existing Roku customers who already have the YouTube and YouTube TVs apps installed on their TVs or devices should continue to have access, but new access may not be permitted.

Roku complained about the higher cost of AV1 decoding, yet it already supports the codec in its high-end Roku Ultra platform.

We also recently reported that Netflix is now rolling out content for smart TVs to support AV1-encoded content, so momentum is building behind AV1 – at least on the streaming side of the market.

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