High-definition sets the picture in the relentless race for change

The BBC and Sky are investing heavily in high-definition television, but this is just one of the new convergent technologies that have become increasingly important over the past 12 months

This year will go down in the media world as the year when the pace of change moved up not just one gera, but several.

Technology – like Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia – is on the move and it is becoming clear the force is unstoppable. Digital compression is bringing down the cost of data handling and the size of products, while boosting the quality of pictures and sound. We see the results all around us – television programmes on mobile phones and the new video iPod, feature-film DVDs falling out of newspapers, the astonishing footage in Sir David Attenborough’s Life In The Undergrowth, and the pre-Christmas boom in sales of large-screen high-definition television- (HDTV-) ready sets.

Convergence, long promised, is actually here and, as the events of the past week have confirmed, companies on all sides are racing to shore up their positions.

NTL’s proposed deal with Virgin Mobile – whether or not it finally comes off – signals what is happening. With the ink not yet dry on its big cable merger with Telewest, or on Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of the broadband company Easynet, the so-called “triple play” of TV, telephone and broadband internet is apparently no longer enough. Mobile is becoming such a strong force as an entertainment medium that people are now talking about “quadruple play”.

With ITV cementing its deal with Friends Reunited, and figures showing digital radio growing ever faster and digital TV available in 66 per cent of homes, the year is ending as it began – with broadcasters and publishers embracing change, only faster.

At the start of the year, ITV chief executive Mick Desmond spelt out for me the commercial broadcaster’s digital strategy: developing a family of TV channels and a move into internet, broadband and mobile, to provide revenue streams to replace the shrinking income from ITV1. Desmond is no longer there, but the strategy is being carried through.

Since then, Channel 4 has rethought its strategy following the success of digital terrestrial service Freeview. Instead of charging viewers for its digital channels – E4, More4 and FilmFour – it is now putting them out free to air, to win bigger audiences and more advertising revenue.

In January, too, a senior BBC executive told me how important HDTV was going to be and how the BBC was gearing up for it. At the time, I was sceptical.

With digital TV already providing better pictures for many viewers – and HDTV requiring enormous bandwidth – I could not see why the BBC wanted to be involved. It already had so many other developments in train – Freeview, a possible Freesat, digital radio, podcasting and the broadband Interactive Media Player. In any case, viewers would need to buy new HDTV sets, which seemed prohibitively expensive.

I could see it made sense for Sky at some future date. Sky was a pay-TV company which could charge for its service improvements. HDTV also played to its strengths, in movies and sport, particularly on large screens such as those in pubs.

Yet even Sky has underestimated the pace of change in HDTV during 2005. Manufacturers and retailers have embraced the technology worldwide, prices are falling and the range of sets is growing. Sky now predicts that 700,000 HDTV sets will be in homes by Christmas, ready for its national launch early next year. It is relying on the BBC – always a pioneer in broadcasting technology – to be one of the providers of high-quality content.

The BBC is now demonstrating HDTV too, and will start trial broadcasts next year on digital satellite and cable services. Two of its big autumn series, Bleak House and Rome, have been shot in HDTV, and you can see the improvement even on normal sets. Some of its World Cup coverage next summer may be broadcast in HDTV too. The cost of production is not hugely greater than existing technology and – as with all things digital – the cost is coming down.

One reason the BBC is investing in HDTV is the growing consumer appetite for larger widescreen sets which magnify the flaws and the blurring of existing TV pictures. Another is the importance of export markets, with America and Japan already embracing HDTV. Another key factor is simply growth in the pace of change. Unless you have a foot in every technology, you could be left behind. The BBC – thanks to the often under-credited John Birt – spotted the potential of the internet early enough to become a major player. It missed the boat with 24-hour TV news and has been playing catch-up since.

That is why all the terrestrial broadcasters have been racing to get their programmes onto broadband and mobile and, within the past few weeks, the video iPod, where Disney’s Lost and Desperate Housewives are blazing the trail.

To understand the scale of what is happening, compare it with climate change. People have been talking about it for years but in 2005 – with floods, hurricanes and melting icecaps – it really hit home.

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