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The biggest challenge facing Sky right now? Not overwhelming its audience

The arrival of Ultra HD is a stepping stone in Sky’s quest to take over the living room and home, but it must balance ambition with accessibility.

Image: David Parry/PA Wire

IT’S PROBABLY FAIR to say that Sky is pretty serious about taking over living rooms.

When it launched Q, its latest set-top box, in late February, it had redesigned its experience from the ground up, opting for a more streamlined approach to finding content.

Adding things like multi-room viewing (through mini set-top boxes that you can watch your shows anywhere, it was one of the more ambitious TV products to come out in a while.

Now four months after it launched, it’s starting to add to the list of features offered by bringing Ultra HD (UHD) shows and movies to Sky Q Silver subscribers on 13 August.

For the viewer, it means that 124 Premier League games and all Formula 1 races will be broadcast in UHD, as well as a number of movies, documentaries, and TV shows. It’s also working on its own dramas like The Young Pope, which will debut in November and will broadcast in this format.

In short, it has big plans for this format, but it’s more a play for the future than the present.

Upgrade

For those unfamiliar with the terms, the difference between UHD and regular HD boils down to screen resolution. HD operates at a resolution of 1080p while UHD bumps it up to 2160p. That means sharper quality on larger screens as it has four times the definition of regular HD.

And when you do view it, you do notice the improvements. After viewing clips of The Revenant and Sky’s own nature documentary Big Cats, the contrast and level of detail you can make out is more noticeable.

Details like depth and scale are more pronounced and the colours are more vibrant as a result. The larger the screen you have, the more impressive the result is.

Sky UHD sports Source: Sky

There are some caveats. As mentioned, you need a large-screen TV, likely 55-inch or bigger, to really notice the benefits such a format brings.

The other is that the proportion of viewers who already own UHD TVs is likely small. If you haven’t bought a new TV in recent years, the likelihood of it being compatible isn’t particularly high.

More importantly, the chances that people are even aware of UHD as a format isn’t that high either, especially with terminology like 4K being flung about by TV manufacturers.

When asked about how much of its audience would be able to use it at launch, Dave Cameron, the director of TV experience at Sky, said that third-party data suggests that ownership of such TVs would range between 10 to 15%, but he believes this could be higher and will likely find out once it officially launches.

“We’re still trying to get a good read from our own base,” he said. We expect it to be higher, but we haven’t been able to correlate that yet”.

sky-q-1 Source: Sky

If you build it, they will come

Yet this is very much building towards the future as the standard has been around since 2013 in some form, just not that many shows or stations took advantage of it.

Over time, people will be upgrading their TVs so like any new standard or product, the idea is to give it time and the number will increase. If you build it, they will come (or to be more exact, if you build it, they will upgrade).

It’s growing. It has to grown because all of the manufacturers are making their sets compatible now… we’re just trying to have content there that meets the demand for the equipment in the market.

While Ultra HD is the main upgrade, there are other small inclusions like a smarter skip feature. Instead of fast-forwarding like normal to get to a part of a film or show you like, pausing it can let you skip to a later point faster than the usual method.

But while other features like voice activation are in the works, and it’s talking with different companies on gradually adding more apps to the service (“We’re focusing on a few app experiences that work well on the big screen… making sure we’re getting the right ones”), the overall challenge is to keep adding without overwhelming viewers.

Add too much and you leave users confused and overwhelmed but add too little over time and people will wonder if it’s a priority for the company. To put it mildly, it’s a challenge to find that sweet spot.

Sky UHD movies Source: Sky

“That’s the constant balance of developing a product,” says Cameron. “You can put too much stuff in sometimes… but you have to balance that and make sure we have all of the entertainment and the content that we know customers want… we talk to them a lot”.

For a big customer session, maybe we’ll do those monthly but we run forums, people give feedback to us, and we try out new software with staff and customers. So we’re constantly getting a feedback loop from the people who are using the product which we can factor [in with updates].

And the approach to introducing new features gradually is the philosophy Sky is basing Q on. The danger with introducing any new product or idea now is the learning curve has to be as gradual as possible, and striking the balance between choice and accessibility is something it has to get right.

Whether the future is looking bright is one thing, but it is looking sharper.

Read: Windows has a 20-year-old flaw that lets printers install malware on your PC >

Read: What the heck is Pokémon Go – and why is it so popular? >

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About the author:

Quinton O'Reilly

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