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, and even the occasional live event, that 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 back in 2020 in 4K – and has since been removed.
In 2020, 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, and then Ridley Road and two new nature shows.
For New Year’s Eve 2022, the BBC spoilt us with three much-talked-about dramas in 4K, including The Tourist and A Very British Scandal. Unfortunately, that year’s Doctor Who special, Eve Of The Daleks, was not made available in 4K.
2022 was off to a good 4K start though, with several new additions – including the critically acclaimed new series, The Responder, and the sixth and final series of Peaky Blinders.
In June 2022, the BBC streamed live sets from the Glastonbury festival in 4K for the first time, with select sets remaining on iPlayer for 30 days, with some matches in Wimbledon 2022 also streaming in 4K.
And in November, the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar will be streamed live in 4K.
We also finally got another Doctor Who special in UHD – The Power of The Doctor (though the BBC were reluctant to announce it beforehand for some reason).
Then in 2023, the Coronation of King Charles III was streamed live in 4K, and several other shows have been added throughout the year, along with a live UHD feed from Wimbledon.
And there’s a bit of good news for the end of 2023 – the three 60th Anniversary Doctor Who specials will stream in 4K.
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.
- Boiling Point: Flawless food, flawed people. In the relentless pressure of the kitchen, someone is going to crack. Following on from the hit film, starring Stephen Graham and Vinette Robinson.
- The Woman in the Wall: One woman’s traumatic past threatens to expose Ireland’s most shocking and darkest secrets. Gothic detective story with Ruth Wilson and Daryl McCormack.
- The Sixth Commandment: An inspirational teacher is courted by a student, triggering a complex criminal case. A sinister real-life story starring Timothy Spall and Anne Reid.
- Champion: Sibling rivalry never sounded so epic. Candice Carty-Williams’s electrifying drama of family and fame, with an original soundtrack from the biggest names in black British music.
- Ten Pound Poms: You can make your own world when you leave the past behind. Swapping dreary 50s Britain for a bright future Down Under, the new arrivals find a fresh start can come at a price.
- Great Expectations: A twist of fate shows Pip a dark world of possibilities, but is he willing to pay the price? Steven Knight’s chilling take on the Dickens classic, starring Olivia Colman.
- Blue Light: For three police recruits in Belfast, the pressure is immense. Facing criminal gangs and divided communities, they don’t know who to trust. The odds are, they won’t all make it.
- The Gold: Three tonnes of solid gold, six armed robbers and an audacious heist that stunned Britain. Stealing it was just the start. Starring Dominic Cooper and Hugh Bonneville.
- The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse: A story of kindness, friendship, courage and hope for viewers of all ages in a heartwarming, hand-drawn animated film based on the children’s book by Charlie Mackesy.
- The English: America, 1890 – two strangers are drawn together in a violent landscape built on dreams and blood. An epic tale of love, revenge and power starring Emily Blunt and Chaske Spencer.
- SAS Rogue Heroes: The adrenaline-fuelled origins of the fearless, reckless Special Forces unit, its legend forged among the mayhem of WWII. By Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight.
- Doctor Who: The Power of The Doctor: Her final battle. Her deadliest enemies. The Thirteenth Doctor faces multiple threats from Daleks, Cybermen and the Master in a fight for her very existence.
- Wreck: Welcome aboard the ship of nightmares. Searching for answers about his missing sister, Jamie joins the crew on a mysterious cruise liner. Conspiracy, comedy and a slice of slasher.
- Inside Man: Everyone’s a murderer, you just need a good reason and a bad day. From death row to a quaint English village, Steven Moffat’s devilish drama with David Tennant and Stanley Tucci.
- Industry, Series 2: Five graduates want a job at a top investment bank, but the boundaries between colleague, lover and enemy blur. A stylish take on a world you think you know.
- Red Rose: In a long, hot, post-exam summer, friends are seduced by the dark power of the sinister Red Rose app. From the makers of Sex Education.
- Sherwood: DCS Ian St Clair is called to investigate a tragic and unexpected murder in an ex-mining town as news of the crime threatens to inflame historic tensions.
- Everything I Know About Love: Four friends. One story of great love. A messy, raucous stumble into bad dates and heartaches – and surviving your twenties. The bestseller from the heart of Dolly Alderton.
- Life After Life: If you could live your life time and again, would you ever get it right? Ursula (Thomasin McKenzie) dies and is reborn, living through turbulent times – but what is it she needs to stay alive for?
- Peaky Blinders, Series 6: The stylish, epic gangster saga. Fierce, damaged crime boss Tommy Shelby stalks the lawless streets of 1920s Birmingham, carving out an empire for himself and his family.
- Life and Death in the Warehouse: The dark side of delivery. A manager – desperate to keep her new job – puts her pregnant colleague under relentless pressure, with devastating consequences
- Mood: The seductive world of influencers hides dark secrets. With nowhere to turn, can aspiring musician Sasha break free? Bold drama with a killer original soundtrack from Nicôle Lecky.
- The Responder: In relentless night-time Liverpool, copper Chris is paired with a rookie. Will they save or destroy each other? A drama series starring Martin Freeman.
- Chloe: Outsider Becky obsesses over influencer Chloe – until tragedy pulls her in deeper than she ever dreamed possible. A thriller series starring Erin Doherty.
- The Tourist: Hurt, alive, but no idea who he is. Lost in the Australian outback, he’s running from a past he can’t remember – and someone wants him dead. Starring Jamie Dornan.
- A Very British Scandal: A drama that focuses on the divorce of the Duke (Paul Bettany) and Duchess of Argyll (Claire Foy), one of the most notorious and brutal legal cases of the 20th Century.
- The Girl Before: A young woman moves into a dream home, but its dark history looms large. Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and David Oyelowo.
- Showtrial: Twisting legal drama from the makers of Vigil.
- The Trick: Feature-length conspiracy thriller based on the events of the ‘Climategate’ scandal in 2009.
- Ridley Road – A thriller set against the backdrop of a swinging sixties London: an East End world where far-right fascism is on the rise.
- 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.
- 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:
- Planet Earth III: Sir David Attenborough explores the dangerous frontiers created by the world’s coasts, where animals fight for survival amidst constant change.
- The Reckoning: Factual drama examining the crimes of Jimmy Savile, with testimony from survivors.
- Wild Isles: Sir David Attenborough celebrates the wonders of the islands that we call home, revealing the surprising and dramatic habitats that exist right on our doorstep.
- Serengeti, Series 3: Love and loss, jealousy and rivalry, tragedy and triumph as the lives of the animals entwine and dramatically unfold in the heart of this legendary land.
- Frozen Planet II: Sir David Attenborough explores a planet on the brink of major change: In a fragile world of beauty and hostility, nature finds a way to survive and thrive.
- Eden: Untamed Planet: Travel to the far corners of the planet and discover the secrets of Earth’s few remaining untouched lands, all brimming with life.
- Dynasties, Series 2: A whole new cast of animal characters with their powerful, gripping stories, presented by Sir David Attenborough.
- The Green Planet: Dive into a world where a single life can last a thousand years, with David Attenborough. See things no eye has ever seen, and discover the dramatic, beautiful plant life of Earth.
- Attenborough’s Wonder of Song: David Attenborough chooses seven of the most remarkable animal songs found in nature and explores the significance of these songs in the lives of their species.
- 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 Earthshot Prize: Repairing Our Planet – Prince William and Sir David Attenborough explore simple, ambitious ideas to repair our planet – solutions offering hope for nature and humanity.
- Wonders of the Celtic Deep: Documentary series (4 episodes) that explores the nature and wildlife of the Welsh coast.
- 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 – some of the Roku 4K devices, Freeview Play 4K boxes like the Manhattan T3-R, Smart TVs by Samsung, LG, Hisense, Panasonic and many others.
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, but Sky Glass, the new 4K TV from Sky, DOES support iPlayer in UHD.
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.