BBC backs new era of high definition TV


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May 24, 2005
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BBC backs new era of high definition TV

· Plans to 'simulcast' top programmes next year
· Modern sets and decoders needed to watch HDTV

high definition format - described by enthusiasts as the equivalent of TV moving from black and white to colour - is to be introduced by the BBC for many of its best-known programmes.

The BBC's director of television, Jana Bennett, will tonight unveil plans to "simulcast" highlights of BBC1's peaktime schedule, including major drama, documentaries and sport shows, in high definition from the middle of next year on satellite and cable. It will also launch a trial of HDTV broadcasts via Freeview, the free to air digital service, using spare capacity in the London area.

Advocates of the technology, which produces pictures four times as detailed as conventional broadcasts, claim that programmes look incredibly lifelike, with more vivid colours and better quality surround sound. It is already popular in America and the far east.

The corporation, which already produces some programmes, such as Bleak House and Rome, in high definition for sale to the overseas market, has appointed a head of HDTV to manage and run the trial. Seetha Kumar, who coordinated pan-BBC events such as the recent Africa Lives season, will take the role. Big budget natural history series, including the forthcoming Planet Earth, and sporting events will also be filmed in the format and the BBC has pledged to move all its production to HD by the end of the decade.

But some will find the move controversial at a time when the BBC has asked for a 2.3% above inflation licence fee increase and is also leading the conversion to digital TV by 2012. In its submission, the BBC said it would need an extra £700m to build a new broadcasting infrastructure to support digital and high definition broadcasts. "From colour and widescreen to digital radio and television, the BBC has always been at the forefront of innovations in broadcasting," said Ms Bennett. "Our promise to our licence payers is to give them the highest quality television, so the time is right for the BBC to get involved in high definition."

To take advantage of the higher quality pictures, viewers will need an HDTV-ready television set. They will also need a cable or satellite set top box capable of decoding the high definition signal. The Digital Television Group said that a third of the 5.5m TV sets sold in the UK in the past year are already capable of receiving the next-generation broadcasts.

BSkyB will be the first broadcaster to launch a range of high definition channels in the first half of next year, including special versions of Sky One, Sky Sports and Sky Movies. Its chief executive, James Murdoch, has said the technology "blows your mind". Cable operators NTL and Telewest will follow suit, initially offering HDTV programming delivered on demand rather than live broadcasts.

Broadcasters are unlikely to be able to launch high definition channels on Freeview until after 2012, when extra capacity will be freed up by the switch from analogue to digital television. A spokesman for Sky said that the pay TV group had already brought forward the launch of HDTV because of consumer enthusiasm for better quality pictures and sound, shown by the boom in DVD sales, home cinema and widescreen television sets.
· George Entwhistle, the executive behind the BBC's return to peak-time arts programming with The Culture Show, has been made head of television current affairs at the corporation. The executive editor, topical arts for BBC2 and BBC4 will fill the position vacated by Peter Horrocks when he was promoted to head of television news earlier this year.

Owen Gibson, media correspondent
Tuesday November 8, 2005

Guardian Unlimited ; Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005