What no HD?

The UK appears to be falling behind with the creation of HD content, particularly when compared with the US. E&T looks at the measures UK broadcasters are taking to catch up.

Last year, consumer display manufacturer LG released the results of a UK survey which demonstrated a great deal of confusion and subsequent distrust of high-definition (HD) technology.

The survey discovered that more than half of all UK viewers were very reluctant to invest in HD - be it TVs, set-top boxes or Blu-ray players - because of confusion over industry jargon.

Around one-in-four of the population apparently does not understand what HD is, while 80 per cent do not know the difference between HD Ready 1080p (able to receive and broadcast in full HD) and HD Ready (able to receive full HD content and broadcast it at a lower resolution). Some consumers even assume that having the HD logo on a TV automatically makes all content viewable in high-definition.

LG Electronics digital display marketing manager George Mead believes that while interest in HD is growing, an education drive is required to push through mass adoption.

"It's key for us to translate this growth into relevant and tangible consumer experiences and the only way this will succeed is through education and by keeping the tech jargon simple and clear," claims Mead.

Misleading information

This confusion is not down to lack of intelligence from the British public, but confusion created by incorrect information from retailers, claims a 2007 Ofcom report. But can we really put this down to ignorance - or should the broadcasters be doing more to bring HD content to the UK? Despite almost half of all UK households now owning at least one HD-capable television set, only a fraction of this number is actually watching in HD. Much of the problem is the dearth of HD programming available.

BSkyB is arguably the only broadcast platform outputting a significant amount of HD content. The platform has over 30 HD channels - significantly more output than its rivals.

Virgin Media only has one dedicated channel - BBC HD. However, Virgin also offers a great deal of HD content for download - such as on-demand movies.

However, the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 will launch HD TV channels on Freeview next year, according to Ofcom. ITV would air peak-time shows and Channel 4 would have a full version of the channel in HD, but the BBC's plans to expand beyond its current BBC HD channel have yet to be realised.

Viewers will need a HD-ready TV and a new Freeview set-top box based on the DVB-T2 standard which will free up bandwidth to allow the launch of these extra channels between late 2009 and 2012.

Terrestrial switchover

Part of the problem is that the terrestrial signals will only be able to support four or five HD channels. Theoretically more can be made available, but only by limiting the amount of channels currently on-air.

Freesat, which was launched last year by the BBC and ITV as a free digital satellite joint venture, may be the answer as, potentially, the broadcasters will be able to launch dozens of HD channels.

It also has the advantage of being able to reach 98 per cent of UK households including the estimated 20 per cent of the UK population who cannot yet access free digital television.

"With more than 9.6 million HD-ready televisions already sold in the UK, but only a tiny fraction of those who own them currently able to receive HD programmes, there's a big opportunity for Freesat to lead the way in introducing the UK to high-definition viewing," says Freesat managing director Emma Scott.

According to the analysts, Screen Digest, 41 per cent of households in the UK already own at least one HD-ready television. Unfortunately, only 10 per cent of these households are connected to a high-definition television service.

The lack of HD content has not gone unnoticed in international circles. The recent British Open golf tournament, which was produced and broadcast in standard-definition by the BBC, was also sold internationally.

In the US, where HD sports broadcasting is more widely available, the ABC network was severely criticised for not broadcasting the tournament in HD. However, it was not their fault and a commitment has now been given that next year's tournament will be produced in high-definition by the BBC.

The limited variety of HD content available, as well as the cost of subscriptions, is seen as a barrier to more widespread adoption.

Yet sports are just one area of broadcasting. The studio environment can be far more complicated to deliver HD. Here there is no room for latency, particularly in the busy newsroom. System bottlenecks and crashes can be common as broadcasters are often dealing with broadcasts from some of the most inhospitable locations around the world. Often these broadcasts rely on satellite uplinks.

Inmarsat, one of the main suppliers to the industry, currently offers equipment for foreign correspondents that can upload content at a consistent bit rate of 384kbit/s through its Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN). That is enough to provide live broadcasts in standard-definition of about 25 frames per second. But this is not high-definition

The studio environment itself also needs an upgrade. Standard-definition television signals have to travel around the various coaxial cables in a raw format to ensure that there is no signal degradation. But the bit-rate required for standard definition alone is 1.5 gigabits per second. For high-definition 1080p video, you need to double this.

After moving the uncompressed signal around the studio, once a video is ready to be broadcast it has to be converted on-the-fly into the correct formats for the various broadcasting channels, which may be satellite TV, terrestrial, cable, Internet or mobile devices. This process is known as transcoding, and requires massive processing power. This is why news is likely to be one of the slowest areas of broadcast to convert to full HD.

However, HD appears to be more than just a passing fad. The initial hesitance may have something to do with the graveyard of previous broadcasters - such as British Satellite Broadcasting and OnDigital.

Its current slow progress may be put down to the slowing revenue of commercial broadcasters due to the slump in advertising revenue.

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