Freeview is the stumbling block for HDTV

Sky%20HDEighteen months after BSkyB launched the UK’s first high definition television (HDTV) service, the first terrestrial broadcaster will begin offering HD content.

Last week’s announcement from Channel 4 that it will launch a simulcast service on the Sky platform in December, together with plans by the BBC and ITV to offer HD early next year, should lead to widespread uptake of the technology, according to the experts.

As an ITV spokeswoman says: “We recognise the value of content as we move forward into HD, and it is important for the long-term value of content that we invest in it.” Its primetime service will launch next spring on FreeSat, a free-to-air satellite platform joint venture with the BBC, which also hopes to launch HD, following approval from media regulator Ofcom. Ofcom says there would be “little adverse effect” on commercial rivals should the BBC launch HD services.

With the terrestrial broadcasting giants joining the likes of Sky Movies, Discovery and National Geographic in offering HD, it is likely to quickly gain mainstream appeal.

Meanwhile, MTV Networks is planning the first pan-European HD channel. MTV Networks International president Bob Bakish says: “This is a new area for us and we’re confident there will be a strong demand for HD programming from our brands such as MTV, VH1 and Nickelodeon.” 

The ITV spokeswoman goes further and hints that it is incumbent on the industry to raise consumers’ HD expectations. “There is a role for the public service broadcasters to drive the uptake of HD and it is now key for it to be available as widely as possible,” she says.

Overcoming obstacles
However, regulatory hurdles bar much content from being aired on Freeview, the UK’s biggest digital platform, until at least 2012, so it could yet prove costly to establish the HD format here.

To date, about 450,000 people subscribe to Sky and Virgin Media services, paying between £10 and £15 a month. Subscriber numbers are growing quickly, yet there are about ten times as many HD-Ready sets as subscribers.

That, says Channel 4 head of video-on-demand and emerging channels Sarah Rose, is partly down to consumer confusion. She says that HD sets have gone from being a luxury to becoming almost standard when buying a TV. But customers often believe the HD-Ready logo is an indication they can immediately receive services, which is not yet the case.

Broadcasters have teamed up with manufacturers to launch HD4All, a lobby group aiming to guarantee free-to-air services through Freeview to stop a “two-tier” TV society.

They want the Government to set aside spectrum following the analogue switch-off in 2012, but may have to fight mobile phone operators in an open auction.

Although lobbying continues, culture minister James Purnell this month warned that reserving spectrum for broadcasters would be “a sure way to freeze innovation”.

The message seems clear. Broadcasters face an expensive battle to launch on Freeview and doubt they can claim back the cost through advertising revenue.

Taken for granted
Despite a recent study by Discovery in the US showing that viewers take much more notice of advertising delivered in HD, broadcasters believe advertisers will not pay a premium, leaving them either out of pocket, or unable to bid. Moreover, they claim, the public expects HD as a matter of course.

The ITV spokeswoman says: “There is obviously interest in having the opportunity to show ads in HD, but we are finding that it is not necessarily appropriate for advertisers to pay a premium for that.” 

It seems mainstream broadcasters realise the need to offer high definition, but doubt remains as to how mainstream the technology can become.

As Channel 4’s Rose says: “We don’t want to be behind in embracing new technologies, and audiences expect us to be ahead of the game. We don’t yet know if there is going to be mass consumer appeal, although there is definitely consumer demand.” 

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