By Phillip Swann
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TV Answer Man, I read your story on channels that have 4K. Can you explain to me why native 4K is so much better than upscaled 4K. I know ESPN used to have native 4K, right? — Dan, Gaithersburg, Maryland. 

Dan, ESPN hasn’t done native 4K in a few years, opting to switch to upscaled 4K, which is also how Fox and NBC transmit live sporting events in the format. The sports network, which does about two dozen college football and basketball games a year in 4K, told Sports Video Group that the switch from native was driven by several factors.

“Last year, we did (college basketball and football) in native UHD (4K) HDR and that was meant as a testing ground for the entire company as we evaluated UHD internally and with our affiliates to determine plans moving forward,” said Michael Sullivan, the network’s operations specialist. “Ultimately due to a variety of factors including UHD distribution (issues), we have decided to focus on 1080p HDR this year…and also 1080p SDR across the board.”

The good news is that ESPN’s 4K picture is still clearly better than HD, although not as crispy as a native 4K broadcast. But why is that? Why is native 4K better than upscaled 4K?

What Is Native 4K and Upscaled 4K?

Native 4K resolution refers to a video that is shot, produced and transmitted to the home in 4K resolution, with 3840×2160 pixels. The production includes 4K cameras and 4K transmission equipment at site. However, upscaled 4K is usually shot in 1080p HD and then upscaled to a 4K resolution for the home transmission.

Native 4K provides more detail and clarity than upscaled 4K because you’re using 4K cameras and other 4K equipment at the site. This increased level of detail can be especially important for sports broadcasts, creating a more realistic effect, making the viewer feel like he or she is there.

While upscaled 4K may not offer the same level of detail and clarity as native 4K, it still provides a significant improvement over lower resolutions like 1080p. Upscaled 4K, particularly combined with HDR (High Dynamic Range), enhances the image quality, resulting in sharper edges and better color accuracy. For many viewers, the difference between native 4K and upscaled 4K may not be noticeable or may not justify the additional cost or technical requirements, which is why almost all networks today use upscaled rather than native 4K. NESN’s 4K broadcasts of the Boston Bruins and Red Sox is a rare exception with its native 4K productions.

Dan, hope that helps. Happy viewing and stay safe!

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The TV Answer Man is veteran journalist Phillip Swann who has covered the TV technology scene for more than three decades. He will report on the latest news and answer your questions regarding new devices and services that are changing the way you watch television. See the bio for Phillip Swann here.