HD on Freesat

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Some time ago many independent retailers were disenfranchised by Sky, having failed to reach targets for turnover. For this and other reasons some shops strongly promote Freesat boxes and TVs. Recent events have not helped…

HD paucity

As things stand at present, Sky offers about 50 high-definition channels, while Freesat can muster only three, BBC1 HD, BBC HD and ITV1 HD. Amongst the channels newly available from Sky are ITV2 HD/3 HD/4 HD, not replicated on Freeview or Freesat because they are subscription only, offered as part of Sky’s HD package. Broadly, the genres for these three channels at launch are ITV2 HD, reality, game shows, celebrity; ITV3 HD, documentaries and arts; ITV4 HD, sport, some movies.

This is the first time that ITV has produced programmes which have to be paid for by subscription: its normal modus operandi (apart from the disastrous ITV Digital venture which sank in 2002) is funding by paid advertising. This development is particularly disappointing to Freesat users and dealers in light of the fact that Freesat is a joint venture between ITV and the BBC, though it must be admitted that ITV’s advertising revenue has dwindled in recent times, and this at a time when TV viewing hours are at an 18-year high, and less than 8% of households remain solely reliant on analogue transmissions. My own experience of Freesat is that, even after last year’s reduction in bit-rate, BBC high-definition programmes generally look better than ITV1 HD’s, for which there may be several reasons; certainly some HD broadcast channels put out a lot of material which is either upscaled or whose original quality is not up to HDTV standards. It’s good to see the extension of BBC HD broadcasting hours from nine to twelve a day.

Selling Freesat

We really need more HD content on the Freesat platform to be able to sell it well. Every box that goes out of the door will be in use for some years, and it’s boxes established in homes which cement broadcasting platforms. While the cramped UHF broadcast spectrum limits the number of HD channels possible on Freeview’s terrestrial network, the SHF (satellite) band can accommodate many, many HD channels, given a sufficiency of satellite transponders to relay them. Thus the main constraints on Freesat HD are financial, contractual and ‘political’ rather than technical or physical. As all TV broadcasting moves towards HD it should, I believe, be available on Freesat within the latter’s terms of reference – which may one day include pay-TV: it hasn’t been ruled out.

Constitution

Freesat is quite unlike other broadcasting platforms in that it’s a non-profit-making private joint venture which makes no programmes of its own, and has no shareholders to satisfy. Set up in the spring of 2008, one of its missions is to fill in areas not reached by the terrestrial broadcasts of Freeview. Freesat gives no subsidy to programme providers, and has to charge for the EPG entry, also pass on the cost of the spectrum space used, satellite transmitters, etc. The design and marketing of Freesat receivers (within the technical specification) is entirely up to manufacturers, and the platform is available to any HD TV station wishing to come on board.

Many HD broadcasters see no advantage in joining another platform: it incurs extra expense without greatly increasing their viewer base, unattractive in the current financial climate, and as the revenue from TV viewing is spread ever thinner as the number of channels increases. It seems, then, that HD content on Freesat will increase and get well ahead of that of terrestrial Freeview, but it’s going to take a while.

Quality programmes

A seldom-realised aspect of the Freeview HD service, and one which is important to sales staff looking to sell it, is that the three channels available are really top-quality ones: some would say that they are worth dozens of low quality, poor-content HD rivals. Everything that’s important seems to be available on one of these three channels: World Cup football, Wimbledon tennis, Promenade Concerts, quality dramas and documentaries. BBC1 and ITV are two most popular channels, with about 40% of total viewing between them, while BBC HD puts the icing on that cake. What value has a blurry upscaled ‘HD’ repeat of a 1970s programme against that?

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