Raymond Snoddy on media: HDTV needs team effort at World Cup

The launch of high-definition television (HDTV) will be the big media marketing challenge for 2006. Happily, just as the 1953 coronation came along at just the right time to give TV an essential boost in the UK, so we have the ready-made event for HDTV - the World Cup.

If England were to make the final, football fans would be desperate to see the match in high definition. And if they couldn't manage to get a box themselves, the word of mouth that can drive the rapid spread of new technology will begin to work its magic.

HDTV is going to be a success, there is no doubt about that. It is only a matter of when. It only takes 60 seconds alone with an experimental transmission to become hopelessly smitten and start demanding 'I want it now.' It is already a huge success in the US and almost all network drama shows are now shot in high definition.

But, unusually for communications technology, the UK is lagging behind the US and needs to catch up. The signs are auspicious - as long as the major players co-operate.

The BBC has announced HDTV trials and Sky has promised it will launch a full commercial service early in 2006. We can't expect too much from ITV, though; it will be too busy closing down The ITV News Channel and catching up with its old school chums through Friends Reunited.

Sport, movies, nature and landscape documentaries and the arts work particularly well on HDTV, which is why the previously unregarded Artsworld channel will take centre stage as one of Sky's high-definition launch channels.

Cunning old Sky - that was why it bought Artsworld. The arts, particularly opera and ballet, look terrific in high definition. The BBC is obviously thinking along similar lines - it has just signed a three-year agreement with NHK in Japan to produce musical performances for HDTV.

National Geographic is an equally obvious contender for Sky and there have also been talks with Discovery.

For Sky in particular, HDTV could be the ticket that gains it important territory at the top end of the market. While it will be possible to transmit a few HDTV channels on Freeview, it is a natural opportunity for satellite.

And Sky has a well-earned reputation for doing what it says it will.

This week, as if by magic, the broadcaster announced that it had hit its 8m satellite home target more than two weeks early.

Compared with Sky's moves on HDTV, the BBC looks positively tentative, with talk of a year of trial broadcasts.

Yet nobody is talking about the big marketing peg - the World Cup - even though the Germans will be transmitting it in high definition.

The slight problem for Sky is that although it will have the service up and running, it will not have the rights to any of the England games. The BBC, on the other hand, will have the rights but will not be able to provide a full HDTV service.

It will be a complete disaster if a deal is not done, even if money has to change hands. A wonderful marketing opportunity will have been lost.

A last-minute deal will not work.

Viewers will need time to get their heads around the fact that when the Sky service is launched they will be able to see the World Cup in high definition courtesy of the BBC.

Experience shows that it is in the interests of all broadcasters to co-operate to get a new technology off the ground - digital radio being the obvious example.

A BBC HDTV trial without the World Cup would be pathetic, and as for Sky; the Premier League is all very well but it's not exactly a national marketing campaign provided virtually for free.

30 SECONDS ON ... HIGH-DEFINITION TELEVISION

- High-definition (HD) TV has been available to consumers in the US since 2002. It will launch in the UK in 2006.

- Programmes shown in high definition on an HD-compatible TV have four times as much picture information (pixels) than normal TV.

- Consumers will need to buy an HD Ready TV and Sky HD box to receive it.

- HD-ready LCD TVs start from £700 for a 26in model, although some customers are investing £2000-£3000 for plasma screens between 65in and 80in.

- The initial channels will include Sky Sports, Sky Movies, and versions of Sky One and Artsworld.

- Sky is predicting that 700,000 HD Ready TVs will be installed in UK homes by the end of the year.

- There are two types of HD TV signals: 1080i and 720p, referring to the number of horizontal lines in each TV frame, and the way the signal is transmitted - 'interlaced' or 'progressive'.

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