A slow start for HD

HDTV in Europe is suffering a long gestation period. Compared with the United States, mainstream programming is barely off the starting blocks. The World Cup in 2006 was supposed to be the kickoff for services, but excluding Sky in the UK, HDTV still remains a novelty for most viewers.

Germany, with the largest population of a European state, has many affluent consumers, yet a recent report from market research company GfK indicates public broadcasters there are unwilling to invest in HD programming because they would only reach a minority of viewers. It's a classic chicken-and-egg situation.

Across Europe, large flat-panels are selling, but the same report indicates that consumers are unaware of whether they receive analog or digital TV, and they don't understand what “HD-ready” means. One could conclude that consumer manufacturers and retailers are happy to sell large displays but don't care what signals are viewed, whether they're SD or HD, analog or digital.

So where is the logjam? Do consumers want HD? Will they pay a premium? Is there sufficient bandwidth? There are many reasons why consumers aren't shouting for HD, and for broadcasters, what is the business case? Unless a program is being made that can be sold to HD countries, then the case for HD production, when there are very few domestic viewers, is weak. The main justification is to build up an archive of HD programs for when the mainstream channels turn to HD transmissions.

As I watch the change from analog to digital SD (which is still in progress), a fair proportion of the population hang on to their old technology receivers until they fail, and that could be 10 years to 15 years. There is no rush to change. As long as viewers can still receive pictures, they are happy. This combination of few viewers with HD receivers (not just displays) and broadcasters reluctant to increase their costs means that the move to HD may be slower than some would want.

There has been a gradual increase of services since the World Cup, but the Olympics are just around the corner, and this time it's all HD. This event stands a much better chance of increasing public awareness of HD transmissions. There is more of an opportunity to receive transmissions and more HD-capable STBs. During the World Cup, HD transmissions were still a bit experimental, and the best chance of watching the event in HD was in a bar, rather than in the home.

Another impediment to the advance of HD has been the lack of a single optical disk standard. Now there is just one, Blu-ray, and the prices of players are dropping. The market is wide open for Blu-ray to find its way into homes and expose viewers to the potential picture quality of HD. Perhaps then the consumers will start to pressure broadcasters to transmit similar quality pictures.

So will Blu-ray and the Olympics finally turn heads to HD? Time will tell.

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