As Sky further expands its HD line-up, Julian Clover counts the pixels.
Let’s be clear about this, but HD is here to stay. It’s worth reminding ourselves of that because the enthusiasm for the format has been mixed to say the least. The numbers to count are not the HD Ready sets that in many high street stores are the only type you can buy, but the people who are actually signing up.
Sky this week demonstrated the commitment that has brought it close to half a million subscribers. The 26 channels that will be available on Sky from October are expected to rise to 30 by the end of the year. The number may still be dwarfed by the 92 available from DirecTV in the United States, and we’ll come back to that, but it is pretty close to the total of analogue channels provided by Sky before the launch of its digital platform in 1997.
The US numbers are deceptive because those 92 channels include the time-shifted versions that serve viewers on the West and East coasts. There are also around 15 regional versions of the Fox Sports Network. So in reality the UK is not really that far behind the US curve. Counting the number of available feeds is always an art rather than a science and is my least favourite show floor question. The US also has more than one premium movie provider and this also boosts the numbers. Although Britain, like other European markets, has a number of basic movie channels available the premium service is left to Sky. This is not to ignore the separate on demand service available on Virgin.
The cable operator has ‘chosen’ to largely restrict its HD offerings to VOD, leaving BBC HD as the only linear channel available in high def. The official line is that this is Virgin’s choice, though it is at odds with what is known about some of the broadcasters on Sky, such as Channel 4 that is known to have an exclusive contract with the DTH platform.
The contract also keeps the public broadcaster off the public broadcaster’s DTH platform Freesat. Its operators BBC and ITV provide the only two HD channels, or should that be one and a quarter, ITV confirming plans to evolve its present Red Button service into a full primetime channel once DTT capacity is available.
Problems with the public still not being able to identify what HD actually is were highlighted this week by the manufacturer LG Electronics. 25% of the 1,000 people interviewed failed to understand what HD was and many with an HD Ready set alone thought they already had the high def pictures. Canal Digital uses the wonderful term HD Empty to describe viewers that have the set, but have yet to subscribe. The differences between 1080i and 1080p are bewildering to the man in the street and the term Full HD, which should supposedly describe the latter, is already being badly misused.
Maybe subscribing is the problem, Sky prefers to put its money into the hardware, rather than remove its £10 HD fee. BBC HD, though rough around the edges, is still a great example of the genre. But two channels aren’t enough.