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Sky is 'silly' to whine about HD for All

Putting technology before content

Comment Satellite broadcaster Sky's public affairs chief, Martin Le Jeune, is correct: HDTV is not a fundamental human right. Neither is standard-definition TV. But that doesn't mean it should be limited to two providers, his own company and cable broadcaster Virgin Media.

That's what he implied when he lambasted the HD for All campaign, which seeks to persuade the UK spectrum authority, Ofcom, to make room for terrestrially broadcast HD transmissions sooner rather than later. He described that request as "genuinely silly".

Le Jeune's problem with HD for All's goal is that he doesn't fancy having to compete with it. That's the "genuinely silly" argument, because the two won't compete.

Sky currently offers HD as a premium service on top of what is already a premium service: the standard Sky package. Why is Sky a premium service? Because it charges consumers above what they already pay - the licence fee, essentially - for all those extra channels and the content they can only view there: sporting fixtures, movies and so on. Virgin Media offers much the same deal via cable.

Freeview, by combining a number of free-to-air TV and radio digital channels widens the choice open to consumers well beyond the BBC 1, BBC 2, ITV, Channel 4 and Five selection available on analogue, but it's still a long way short of the 500-odd channels Sky and Virgin Media offer and lacks the exclusives.

It's a simple choice for the consumer: have a relatively limited selection of free channels, or pay more and get many more channels and exclusive content. That's all there is to it, and in such a market there's room for basic broadcast services and premium offerings alike.

If HD for All gets its way, Freeview will get a number of HD channels, most of them HD versions of programmes that will also be broadcast, for free, in SD. Consumers are unlikely to be offered a wide array of channels and the other content Sky offers to make up its sales proposition. In short, Freeview, even with HD, isn't going to compete seriously with Sky. Viewers are not suddenly going to get episodes of 24 and Tri-Nations rugby just because Freeview's gone HD. 'Extra spectrum' does not equate to 'extra content'.

I don't subscribe to Sky because I don't watch enough TV to warrant paying extra for a whole heap of channels I'm never going to watch. I don't watch a great deal of content on Freeview. But I would like to watch what I do in HD. I will have to a pay a premium for it because I'll need to buy a suitable TV and a new set-top box, but I don't see why I should pay a tenner a month or whatever to Rupert Murdoch just to get HD versions of free-to-air programmes that the hundred quid annual subscription I already pay to the BBC ought already to grant me the right to view.

How many Freeview HD viewers, having had a taste of HD, will opt for Sky's channel-enhanced alternative? Plenty of consumers have made that upgrade for SD content, and they'll do it for HD too.

The problem for Sky is that if they can't maintain that content lead, their offering begins to look less attractive to consumers, and if there's no technical lead either, it may find punters choosing to stick with the free services rather than its premium one.

That Le Jeune chooses to base his argument on his company's technology advantage rather than its lead in content - which is exactly what his beef with HD for All boils down to - suggests he's unsure Sky can win on what it broadcasts, only on how it broadcasts.

That cart-before-the-horse argument is what's "genuinely silly" about this week's HD in the UK debate.

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