Europe debates HD format applications

HD formats were on the minds of many attendees at IBC2004. The conference drew almost 40,000 people this year.

At the recent IBC conference last week in Amsterdam, that drew nearly 40,000 attendees (a six percent gain from last year), it was apparent that the European broadcast community has learned little from the infamous U.S. debate about which HD format best suits real-world distribution applications. At the receiving end most American viewers can’t tell the difference.

More than a year ago, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) announced that the 1080-line interlaced scanned format (at 50fps) was their choice for a worldwide transmission format that broadcasters should support. Last week, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) said that the 720-line progressive-scanned format would best serve the marketplace.

After a two-year test period, the EBU’s Mike Croll, chairman of the organization’s B/TQE (responsible for establishing an HD strategy for broadcasters), said European broadcasters are best served adopting the 720p 50 HD standard.

The decision, he said, was based on the notion that transmitting 720p material was the best for European broadcasters; saving valuable bandwidth for data services, interactive gaming, services as well as HD programs.

At a panel discussion later in the week, other EBU representatives downplayed Croll’s announcement, stating that the decision is not yet official. Yet a document from the EBU advisory committee is circulating among the broadcast community that recommends the 720p/50 format be used for transmission, and is set to be put in motion in 2006-2007.

Much like in the U.S. circa 1997-1998, the split HD format decision has many broadcasters and potential equipment buyers pausing before making HD-related purchases that might limit their future viability. In fact, many manufacturers on the exhibit floor said that most attendees they spoke with were only minimally interested in actually deploying HD systems.

Equipment manufacturer Sony Electronics disagreed with the EBU’s decision. Sony’s cameras and switchers are designed to produce programs in the 1080i format almost exclusively. The company said the EBU did not have sufficient access to data that shows consumer electronics manufacturers are able to make flat panel TVs that can display native 1920x1080 pictures.

For its part, Panasonic executives have stayed neutral. The company released a white paper at the conference stating that both 720p and 1080i were acceptable.

Panasonic also announced its support for the EBU proposed HD standard of 720/50p for European HD services, while also confirming continued strong support for 1080/50i production equipment. In introducing a series of both tape-based and solid-state production products, it said the only important criterion for broadcasters is that the introduction of HD must be cost effective.

Thomson Broadcast & Media Solutions, with its various offerings of multi-format equipment, has also mainly stayed clear of the debate, except to state publicly that HD will be widespread in Europe next year.

In the U.S., CBS and NBC continue to use the 1080i format while ABC and FOX transmit 720p signals for their HD programs. In the end, consumers have not shown a preference for either, and broadcast models based on the formats have not shown significant advantages either way.

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