With most of the global streaming services now delivering their flagship shows in 4K, the BBC is very much behind the curve, with only a handful of programmes available in 4K via BBC iPlayer.
But all is not lost – the BBC keeps testing 4K (Ultra HD) programming, with a changing selection of shows – and there are a few top-tier programmes you can watch on BBC iPlayer in 4K right now – if you have the right equipment.
In this guide, I’ll take a look at everything you need to do (and own) in order to set up and watch 4K / HDR content from the BBC.
What Is 4K / Ultra HD And HDR?
Up until a couple of years ago, we were happy enough with Full HD quality on our TV screens – which gives you a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080.
4K (also known as Ultra HD) gives you four times the details over Full HD, with a resolution of 3,840 x 2,160 pixels,
HDR, which you often see mentioned alongside 4K, stands for “High Dynamic Range”. It’s a technology that helps improve the contrast rates between whites and blacks, making the picture much more accurate, while also providing a larger colour palette and more colour shades.
Most devices these days (Smart TVs and streaming devices) support both 4K and HDR, and TV shows usually support these two technologies together.
4K / HDR content is becoming more and more common these days – many of the programmes and movies on Netflix, Disney+ and Prime Video already support it (as long as you have the right subscription tier), especially with their newer “flagship” shows.
The Never-Ending 4K BBC Trial
Sadly, the BBC is far behind the other streaming services when it comes to 4K. There are several reasons for this – some of which are regulatory.
The funny thing is, the BBC already films a lot of their dramas in 4K, and you can sometimes find 4K BBC content on OTHER streaming platforms (or Blu-ray discs), with that same show only available in Full HD on the BBC’s own iPlayer app.
The BBC has been running “trials” of 4K content on iPlayer since 2016, when Planet Earth was streamed in UHD and HDR on supported devices. The BBC also streamed live 4K coverage from Wimbledon 2018 and 2019, the 2019 FA Cup final and semi-final matches, and all FIFA World Cup 2018 matches.
Since then, more 4K programmes (and the occasional live 4K broadcast) have been added, and removed, from the trial: from nature shows like Blue Planet II (which is still available, as of this writing), to Dracula, which was added two years ago in 4K – and has since been removed.
Last year, when the first UK lockdown started the 4K trial was shut down temporarily, as a “precautionary measure”, in order to ease the strain on the broadband networks in the UK (Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ similarly reduced video quality around Europe, for the same reasons).
Later in 2020, the BBC brought the 4K trial back – by adding a much-requested show in 4K, His Dark Materials. Then, on January 1, 2021, we finally got our first (on iPlayer) Doctor Who in 4K. And by late summer, we also got the new hit series – Vigil.
What Can I Watch In 4K On BBC iPlayer?
The list of TV programmes that are part of the BBC’s 4K trial keeps changing. But these are the ones available as of this writing.
- Vigil – The thrilling submarine drama series from the makers of Line of Duty and Bodyguard.
- Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks: The most recent New-years special, starring Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor.
- Black Narcissus: A mini-series based on the 1939 novel, about nuns who travel to the mysterious palace of Mopu, where they discover dark secrets.
- His Dark Materials: An adaptation of the fantasy novels by Philip Pullman, which follows the life of a young girl in an alternate world.
- The Pursuit Of Love: Impatiently waiting for life to begin, two cousins are thrust into a decadent, whirlwind adventure. Starring Lily James and Andrew Scott.
Nature shows / Documentaries:
- Attenborough’s Life in Colour: Using the latest camera technology, David Attenborough reveals the extraordinary ways in which animals use colour.
- Blue Planet II: Wildlife documentary series that explores the planet’s oceans, presented and narrated by David Attenborough.
- Dynasties: Five extraordinary animals, each in a heroic struggle against rivals and against the forces of nature, fighting for their own survival and for the future of their dynasties.
- A Perfect Planet: Another David Attenborough natures series, that looks at how incredible, awe-inspiring life is driven by its natural forces – and how we can ensure humans become a force for good.
- Seven Worlds, One Planet: Revealing the extraordinary wildlife stories and unseen wilderness of our seven unique continents, narrated by David Attenborough.
- 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room – A documentary that tells the definitive story of the Bush administration through 12 hours of that momentous day.
- The Queen’s Christmas Broadcast from December 25, 2020.
How Can I Watch 4K (UHD) Content On BBC iPlayer?
You need to make sure you have a TV that supports 4K (and preferably HDR as well), and is supported by BBC iPlayer.
However, there’s one caveat when it comes to HDR – there are several HDR formats out there, and the BBC use the HLG format, which isn’t very popular – so you might end up only seeing in 4K quality, without the HDR – depending on your equipment.
You also need a streaming device that supports BBC iPlayer in 4K – either a standalone streaming stick/box, or a Smart 4K TV.
At the moment, the 4K trial is supported on SOME of the popular 4K streaming devices and TVs sold in the UK – the Roku 4K devices, Freeview Play 4K boxes like the Manhattan T3-R, Smart TVs by Samsung, LG, Hisense, Panasonic and many others. The Amazon Fire TV 4K is NOT supported at the moment, unfortunately.
You can find the full list of supported 4K devices here.
For now, the 4K trial is NOT supported on mobile phones and PCs, and therefore also not on the Chromecast Ultra. Sky Q UHD is also NOT supported at the moment.
As with any BBC iPlayer content, you need broadband for the streaming to work. However, 4K streaming consumes a lot of bandwidth, so you might need a faster connection than what you normally use.
The BBC recommends an internet connection speed of 24MBit/s for the full 4K experience (3840 pixels), or 12MBit/s for a lower (2560 pixels) resolution.
4K Settings On BBC iPlayer
On the BBC iPlayer app itself (on your stick or Smart TV), you need to set the video quality to “Best”. When 4K content is available, it will be used automatically – otherwise, Best Quality will stream Full HD content:
- Go to BBC iPlayer’s “Settings”
- Select “Video Quality”
- Choose “Best Quality”
Finally, look for content with the UHD icon:
The list of 4K BBC shows above is everything you can find as of this writing, but more shows may be added in the future.