A small handful of BBC iPlayer users can now watch some of Planet Earth II in glorious HDR 4K.

BBC rolled out the option this week on December 8. Currently if you have a compatible connected TV, you can open up the iPlayer app and be treated to a four-minute high-dynamic range clip of the show in 4K resolution. According to some early impressions, Planet Earth II in HDR 4K looks rather glorious indeed.

A screenshot from the 4K HDR clip. Apparently HDR makes the frog's reds really pop.
Enlarge / A screenshot from the 4K HDR clip. Apparently HDR makes the frog's reds really pop.
One curious aspect of this trial is that it uses an HDR method that you probably haven't heard of before: HLG, or hybrid-log gamma. HLG, which is backwards compatible with existing displays, is a royalty-free standard developed by the BBC and its Japanese public broadcasting counterpart, NHK. Most current HDR playback solutions—PS4, Xbox One, Netflix, Amazon, LG and Sony TVs, etc.—use another method called HDR10.

HDR10 is perfect for prerecorded, on-demand content: it uses a big 'ol lump of metadata to tell the display how to render each frame in HDR. That technique doesn't work so well with live broadcasts, though, or syndicated content that might get chopped up and reordered. HLG doesn't use metadata; instead, each broadcast contains an additional HLG HDR signal. The receiving set-top box or TV has the choice of showing the normal SDR (standard dynamic range) signal, or tapping into the HLG signal if the display supports it.

As we reported below, the entirety of Planet Earth II was filmed in 4K, but for now it's only being broadcast in 1080p. While the number of consumers with 4K TVs is growing, the rest of the pipeline—actually getting that 4K content onto the TV—is still fairly immature. It's one thing to offer on-demand HDR 4K via Netflix, or on a new UHD Blu-ray, but live broadcasting via satellite or digital TV is a little further away.

A couple of weeks ago the DVB steering committee, which controls the standards used for free-to-air digital TV broadcasts, approved a new DVB HDR specification that supports SDR and HDR broadcasts with HLG. Commercial TVs and set-top boxes should follow sometime in 2017, which will pave the way for the first scheduled HDR 4K broadcasts. Sky's satellite-based HDR broadcasts will also likely use HLG.
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The BBC says that the only TVs that currently support HLG are "Panasonic's latest screens." Other TV makers have indicated that their recent displays can receive a firmware update to support HLG, but they're unlikely to do so until HLG fully takes off next year.
Incidentally, if you haven't started watching Planet Earth II yet, the first episode will disappear from iPlayer on Tuesday, December 13.

Original story (Feb 23)

It's been 10 years since the BBC's groundbreaking Planet Earth series hit our screens—and it's now making a welcome return, complete with full use of the latest UHD 4K technology.

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Sir David Attenborough will once again front the show, which will appear on TV later this year, the BBC said. Planet Earth II has been three years in the making, and is billed by the Corporation's controller, Charlotte Moore, as a series that "uncovers stories about the natural world we have simply never been able to witness before.”

The BBC—which didn't reveal an air date for the six episodes—has not only shot the whole thing in UHD, but it also used the latest camera stabilisation, remote recording, and aerial drone technology, too. "We take the audience closer to nature and allow you to experience the wilderness as if you were there," it said.

Attenborough's soothing, yet authoritative tones will once again take viewers across the globe to help bring the story of Earth's wilderness alive, with the BBC promising jungle, cities, deserts, and grasslands, all of which have been captured in 4K.