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Europe's HD dilemma

If you were in this business in the late 1980s, you may recall the chorus calls for an international standard for digital television. The phrase “worldwide DTV” became synonymously linked with the emerging digital television industry. Digital Nirvana — the soon-to-be-adopted digital standard to be embraced by all within the broadcast and production community. We digi-citizens would finally all live together in harmony, unity and peace.

Then reality set in.

In my August editorial, I suggested that Europe stands to lose much if we fail to embrace HDTV transmission. At IBC, I solicited comments regarding that editorial on HD. Frankly, most people I talked with did not support my viewpoint that Europe needs to embrace HD.

From my entirely unscientific poll, European-based broadcast equipment companies believe that there is no pull from the consumer for HD. Some suggested it would be sufficient for the production community to “produce some material in HD.”

When I heard that, I wanted to ask those individuals if they ever left their backyards. Any producer (European or otherwise) who creates content in SD hoping to shop it beyond his country's borders shouldn't be shocked when he's told, “If it's not HD, no sale!”

Despite the European broadcast community's continued resistance to HD, consumer demand is building, and woe to equipment manufacturers who pretend that is not the case. Why will HD grow quickly in Europe? I'll give you four reasons.

First, the HD production equipment cost penalty hovers now around 10 percent to 20 percent, depending on the particular device. It no longer costs twice as much to buy a piece of HD gear. Also, given that HD is fully backward-compatible to SD, why even invest in a short-lived SD product? With little cost penalty, better images, more options and standards-compatible, what's not to like here?

Second, consumers will welcome HDTV sets into their homes. The new HD sets are smaller and cheaper, and the trend will continue. Today's plasma HD TV sets easily fit into anyone's living room. Plasma sets can be wall-mounted, making the argument of “too big” for my living room obsolete. Plasma sets are the next wave in monitor technology, and consumers love them.

Third, the HD programming is already here. The USA is already two years ahead of Europe in terms of HD content. The delivery mechanism (ATSC) is on the air with more channels being added monthly. First tests of HD in Europe have started. Euro 1080 is now delivering HD programming, and more channels will follow.

Finally, the argument that I heard repeated in my interviews — “SD image quality is quite good enough” — won't fly anymore. Once viewers see high-definition images, especially on sports, they will not want to settle for lower-quality SD. It will take the average viewer about 30 seconds to discover the improvement of HD over 625/50.

The filmmaker Orson Wells once said, “I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can't stop eating peanuts.” As viewers are offered more channels and programming choices, image quality differences will be key to their selection. How will your station stand out?

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