Sky torches Sony over HD TV campaign

Ready for the tech that never arrives?

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The British 'HD for All' campaign, designed to promote hi-def TV, drew a withering blast from Sky yesterday.

BSkyB public affairs head Martin Le Jeune described it as a "shabby alliance between a group of public service broadcasters who should know better [and] vendors who sell expensive product". It was "genuinely silly", he told a Westminster audience.

It was insulting to compare the provision of HD programming to something as fundamental as universal healthcare, he said. HD TV is the mass-market technology that never arrives - but Sky has been offering the service for real for over a year now, and actually has some viewers.

Westminster's eForum gathered MPs, broadcasters, and regulators at Millbank yesterday to discuss the state of HD TV in the UK. The day's debate confirmed that in Britain the talking would carry on for some years to come.

Spectrum squeeze

At the core of the delay is the issue of spectrum. The established public service broadcasters say there isn't enough of it to go round. This view was encapsulated by Simon Pitt, "director of platforms" for ITV.

(No one snickers at weird designations like this in TV-land today, because absolutely everyone has a Trumptonshire-style job title with the word "platform" in it.)

Pitt said squeezing HD programming onto the spectrum allocated was "theoretically true but practically difficult". But this is prime spectrum, and lots of people want it. Mobile TV (such as DVB-H) is another way it could be put to use; local TV is another.

"We'll be up against PayTV and mobile operators who are bigger, have deeper pockets, and have means of getting money back from their customers," explained Pitt.

For Sky, among others, the answer is to open up the market. This would end the state's cosy relationship with its terrestrial broadcasting chums.

"The Great Tradition of British Broadcasting means 'give us something for nothing'," he said.

"There's spectrum out there. Who is anyone to say that HD TV is better than mobile TV, or...if we're going to be self-righteous, NHS Direct?"

But supporters of public service broadcasting balk at the prospect. With the BBC and ITV's limited resources, they fear Sky would grab the lot - or at least the best bits.

Ofcom's favoured proposal involves transmission mode change, which means moving everyone around, reorganising the six existing multiplexes to make way for the seventh.

Speaking for Ofcom, Philip Rutnam described it as "a small price to pay for delivering HD sooner, with less risk, and less cost, than allocating new spectrum and building a new network".

The BBC also disputes this.

"Analysis undertaken by the PSBs shows that this is incorrect because insufficient capacity will be released by the transmission mode change," the corporation said in its March response to Ofcom.

According to Paula Guest, also from Ofcom, at least four channels should be able to be viewed universally (98 per cent coverage) using current spectrum and a fifth at 90 per cent coverage in the 2012-2020 time frame. She admitted this was a best-case estimate, and was disputed.

Am I ready or not?

Over here, the problem is the widespread perception that having a Freeview box opens the doors to the HD kingdom, illustrating the confusion between "digital" and "HD". People think they're the same thing.

ITV's Pitt fretted that "FreeView won't be able to offer a compelling platform - and won't be able to keep up with HD".

BSkyB's Le Jeune pointed out that the public were buying "rapidly obsolescent technology". The BBC's HD TV head [surely "Head of HD Platforms"? - ed] Seetha Kumar urged production of MPEG4 boxes to start. But this can't unless the multiplexes are sorted out.

Sony's Adrian Northover-Smith put on his best scare costume: "We are heading for a disastrous outcome," he warned.

Concluding the day, MP Derek Wyatt, vice chair of the all-party parliamentary media group begged the audience: "Just tell us what we need to do."

Over in France, the politicians and the regulator are less squeamish about setting top-down policy. It has mandated that there will be a "native HD quota" of 25 per cent of new material; it has also mandated that TV must include built in HD tuners. So by December 2008 all TVs will be MPEG4-capable.

Voila. Problem solved.

Technology push

Much of the fretting expressed throughout the day seemed to be an irrational anxiety driven by too much focus on technology. More than one speaker felt that unless the UK got its act together we'd lose our successful TV export business - and British viewers will be swamped by (even more) US programmes.

Two notes of dissent put these anxieties in perspective.

Nokia multimedia VP Mark Selby reminded the audience that hi-def didn't mean good programmes.

"We can get so in love with technology, we end up polishing stones," he said.

"I remember when Toy Story came out, everyone said it would be the future of animation. Since then we've had the success of The Simpsons and SouthPark - which shows it's the overall experience that matters".

And South Park doesn't need a hi-def MPEG4 "delivery platform".

The other reality-check came from Guy Holcroft, of market research group GfK: "Today's forum is composed of people who want HD technology," he observed. "GfK haven't seen any evidence that there's widespread national demand for HD TV." ®

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