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The HD event

Robert Weedon | Television | Monday 23rd November 2009

High Definition is the new, incoming standard for British TV production. A 2005 press release issued by Jana Bennett, head of BBC Vision (i.e television) stated that by 2010 every BBC programme would be produced in High Definition. HD is not to be confused with digital TV - it's the next step on from that. Indeed, so far, Freeview isn't able to broadcast HD. Freeview HD will be rolling out gradually over the next few years, but only in certain areas (mainly places with large populations), and much of it still depends on a future decision by Ofcom, which in turn probably depends on which party wins the next election. It won't help that after all the fuss about upgrading to digital, Freeview HD will need another new set-top box.

The BBC, ITV and Channel 4 each have their own dedicated HD channel, although at the moment, BBC HD and ITV HD are only available at no cost on the FreeSat system, and then on Sky and Virgin Media subscription services. Channel 4's offering is only available on Sky+HD at the moment.

The upheaval to HD is as big-a-deal as the switch from 405 to 625 lines was in 1964. (Interestingly, what is now marketed as "standard definition" was then referred to itself as "high definition", and before that 405 was marketed in the same way in comparison to Baird's mechanical system).

Like 1964, HD programmes are only available to those who have upgraded (with all the associated cost and risk of doing so, given the myriad of alternative systems available), the only difference being that programmes are now always simulcast with their standard definition equivalents to avoid accusations of wasting licence-fee payer's money. When BBC2 was launched in 1964, it was only available in 625 lines, arguably with the purpose of showing unique programmes that would try to persuade people to make the switch to 625 lines, for example the hugely influential Forsyte Saga of 1969, a programme whose BBC1 repeat a year later apparently led to pubs and churches closing early on Sundays.

Colour was the next big step, and as usually happens in these situations, woe betide you if you'd just spent lots of money on a 625 line black and white set. I would argue that colour was a much bigger step than 405-625 or the switch to widescreen, in that it was a genuinely desirable upgrade, which meant that finally we could watch television in the colours of the real world (well, sortof).

Whenever a new format is introduced, there is always a 'showpiece' - a programme that makes the most of the new format. For colour TV, it was Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, a study of Western development through art and culture, filmed in gorgeous 35mm film. For HDTV, it was the BBC's nature documentary Planet Earth, also currently the best-selling Blu-Ray title. However, it is never these titles that make the population at large make the switch. Instead, it's usually a big, national television event significant enough and set in stone far enough in advance for people to think it worth paying out for.

It's widely known that it was the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II that led to many people buying their first television set. It's less well remembered, but just as significant, that it was the that wedding of Princess Anne persuaded many to upgrade to a colour television.

But what will be the big event that persuades people to get HD? Despite all the hype, it's highly unlikely that the 2012 Summer Olympics in London will inspire enough people to think it worth shelling out just to watch a few athletes chucking spears around a field, or just running and running and running. I don't personally think enough people are interested enough to make the effort.

Firstly, people are often inherently lazy or scared of new technology, and while buying a new "HD-Ready" or "Full 1080" HD television isn't too difficult, getting the software to watch HD is a bit more of a faff, with way too many options muddying the waters - "Sky, Virgin Media (is that a porn channel?), Freesat, Freeview, Freeview HD, BT Vision, TopUpTV...what do all these mean? Argh!!!"

The other reason is that upgrading to HD will be expensive. Buying a new TV is one thing, but getting a man in to fit a dish or upgraded aerial is another, and at the moment the best way to get these HD channels is via Sky or cable, which is very expensive. The planned increase in broadband capacity is another likely way to watch HD television in the future, although at the present this is rather a glint in the eye of the BBC's Kingswood Warren development department.

Back to this mythical "event" - it could be the Football World Cup in 2010 in Germany, particularly now that England have qualified for it, or if not that World Cup, the next one in 2014. I think the 2010 one might be a bit early, especially as the much simpler Freeview HD coverage will be patchy (and pricey) at the time. It will however be derigeur in pubs - it's become increasingly popular to watch football down the local, and by 2014, who knows? It might be a popular thing to see down the cinema. I think one of these football tournaments will probably persuade a lot of people to change, but curiously, it is often the snooty middle classes who are the last to make the switch to a new format - think how many sitting rooms of big houses you may have entered to find a grotty 4:3 bedroom television the size of a postage stamp nestling in the corner that might not even have an aerial connection on the roof. It's probably a Sony Trinitron. Some of them are even hidden in a sideboard. I don't think these people be swayed to upgrade by football.

With this in mind, history shows us that it might be a big royal event; say what you like about the monarchy, but people are still genuinely interested in them, especially if they're a popular, young royal. My money's on Prince William's wedding.



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