Thursday 8 May 2008

The potential UK digital HD publicity disaster

Digital terrestrial television is now getting pretty well established in the UK, supported by both the cheap availability of set-top boxes (STBs) and the falling price of HD-ready flat panel TVs.  The BBC in particular have had a very extensive campaign about the switch-over for sometime now and it has been very clear about what the general public need to do to be part of the digital TV revolution.  

However techies like myself realised a considerable while ago that once high definition (HD) broadcasts were made available on Freeview (as the terrestrial version is known here) the existing STBs and HDTVs being purchased would have to be replaced in order to receive the HD channels.  In the case of the latter, HDTVs with Freeview receivers built-in, they will at least require a STB for the HD channels.  This is at least partially due to the use of MPEG2 coding for existing digital transmissions and the decision to move to the MPEG4 standard for HD broadcasts.  This will disappoint many ordinary consumers who may partially have decided to invest in such a TV in order to get digital without needing a separate box underneath it!    The tech community often fail to appreciate the things that appeal to these consumers (like my Mum!) including such things as the simple aesthetics of how many damn boxes have to be plugged in just to see the best picture possible.   The cost of a replacement box/TV within such a short period will not go down well with many consumers either. 

HD broadcasts on Freeview are only just being mooted here since it will be a while before the space is found to accommodate them by re-organising the existing channel/multiplex arrangements as well as the analogue broadcasts being turned off.   Therefore the full reaction once this necessity becomes understood is far from being realised yet.   But it isn't a good situation for the tech community to be in, nor a good way to give more people confidence about future technological advances.  

As a postscript, the BBC and ITV have in the last few days been announcing the FreeSat alternative for those who prefer to use a dish and STB rather than terrestrial antennas for their TV and stressing the HD capability of this delivery mechanism.   Perhaps they believe that those who switch to this will not notice the Freeview issue since they will sell them a new STB with the dish anyway.  It might just bring the requirements for people who want to stick with Freeview for HD into more focus instead.  

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