Raymond Snoddy on media: Coming to a screen near you: high-definition TV

Sometimes you have to go abroad to realise just how provincial the UK media really are. A quick trip to the IBC exhibition and conference in Amsterdam at the weekend left one abiding impression - that after many years of disappointment, high-definition television (HDTV) is finally on the way. The trouble is, the breakthrough has occurred in the US, and there is little sign of action in the UK, or indeed anywhere in Europe. 'At last the killer application for digital,' an American executive sighed with pleasure. The figures are impressive. More than 10% of US homes now have HDTV sets, and the number is set to grow rapidly because the big screens are particularly good for sports such as baseball, ice hockey and tennis. Suddenly you really can see where the ball, or puck, is at any particular moment.

Programmers have responded to the very obvious demand with enthusiasm and investment. The ESPN sports channel has set up a high-definition sports channel, while Rupert Murdoch's Fox family of channels is launching no fewer than six high-definition sports channels on satellite. HDTV is seen as the driver for the switch from analogue in a country where mere channel choice is nothing new.

Europe is, of course, different. The quality of US television pictures has always been inferior to those in Europe, so it is hardly surprising that once a US consumer has seen HDTV, there is no going back. The difference between a current good-quality widescreen digital picture and high-definition will not be so dramatic in Europe.

But picture quality could still become an issue at the top end of the market. HDTV pictures, complete with surround sound, will enhance the viewing experience for everything from sports and opera to advertising.

So far the progress in Europe has been limited. In a scarcely noticed development at the start of 2004, an Antwerp company called Alfacam launched two high-definition channels across the continent under the banner Euro1080.

One is a 24-hour channel aimed at consumers, with a four-hour loop of sports, music and cultural events. The content ranges from Elton John and Eric Clapton to Sleeping Beauty and Fidelio. The second, more practical, station is an events channel relaying high-definition pictures of everything from performances of Cosi Fan Tutte to the Euro 2004 final to mass venues.

It is not clear what business model Euro1080 has at this stage. If history is any guide, being first with any technological development for consumers is a dangerous place to be. But Euro1080 may not be alone for long.

When BSkyB chief executive James Murdoch set out his strategy for the future of the satellite broadcaster last month, there were so many announcements that some inevitably did not get the attention they deserved.

But there it was on page 35 of the presen-tation - the headline 'Benefits of HDTV' and a commitment to launch a high-definition service in 2006. For BSkyB, not only is HDTV the ultimate television experience, but it will boost subscriber satisfaction, reduce churn rates and create 'incremental subscription revenue opportunities'.

It is clear the Murdochs have been reading the runes in the US, and everyone in the UK media should start factoring the future potential of HDTV into their calculations. It will obviously start small and may not be much of a force before the end of the decade. But for good or ill, what plays big in the US usually ends up here, and there is no reason to think that HDTV will be any different.

30 SECONDS ON ... HDTV

- HDTV is a widescreen, high-resolution format that uses more vertical and horizontal scanning lines than conventional television to deliver better picture definition. Combined with Dolby digital sound, it offers a complete home-cinema experience.

- The impetus for HDTV originated with widescreen movies. Soon after these were introduced into cinemas, film producers noticed that people in the first few rows engaged with the action more than with other movies.

- Following the introduction of high-definition films, the focus moved to making an HDTV system for commercial broadcasting.

- There are approximately 600m TV sets in the world, of which about 70% are colour. Despite concerns about compatibility between existing TV and HDTV technology, analysts forecast that more than 17m homes in Europe will have HDTV-capable television sets by 2008.

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