A less bleak future: high definition television (HDTV)

This article first appeared in the November 17, 2005 issue of **The Stage**

Next year sees the 80th anniversary of John Logie Baird’s first demonstration of his television equipment and the 70th of the BBC’s first transmissions with Marconi’s 405-line system. While we have progressed significantly from both, 2006 will see the first large-scale UK trials of a new format that will take another substantial leap forward.

Recently, the BBC announced that it will start trials to simulcast its peaktime BBC1 programmes in the new high-definition television (HDTV) format in 2006. Offering a much higher resolution than existing broadcast technologies, HDTV allows far greater detail to be shown – meaning that production teams may have to re-examine how they make programmes.

In visual quality, HDTV is far closer to a cinema experience than even the best current ‘home cinema’ systems can provide. And while that can mean a more sumptuous treat for the consumer, the costs of that quality will ripple throughout all areas of production. When you can see every ripple and fold in an actor’s costume, every pore and line on a performer’s face, the demands upon costume and make-up designers can only increase. In an industry where budgets are already tight, the extra costs involved in such attention to detail must surely be an area of concern.

For now, the BBC is using co-production money to finance its showcase HD productions. Several American cable and satellite services already broadcast in HD, enabling co-productions to lead the way in the new format. Most notably, the BBC’s acclaimed adaptation of Dickens’ Bleak House (a co-production with WGBH Boston) has been recorded in HD. The extra attention to detail is evident, even when viewed on standard TV equipment — it is little wonder the production team chose not to shroud their hard work in the smog that pervades through the original book. When broadcast over HDTV, the improvements promise to be remarkable. Other programmes and genres will follow, with the BBC aiming to master all its peaktime programmes in HD format by 2010.

The biggest barrier to adopting HDTV in the nation’s living rooms is going to be monetary. Most televisions sold today are simply incapable of displaying HD-quality pictures – only a third of current sets are ‘HD-ready’, although that number is expected to increase once HD services become available. Digital satellite and cable viewers will require new set-top boxes and there is some doubt about whether digital terrestrial (DTT or Freeview) will ever have the capacity for HD broadcasting. The BBC has asked Ofcom for permission to conduct a DTT trial in the London area, using a currently unused area of the spectrum. Any permanent, full-scale HD broadcasts on terrestrial would most likely have to wait until digital switchover in 2012 — but that would mean allocating some, or all, of the spectrum that switching off the analogue system is intended to free up.

Still, the technology is on its way. British Sky Broadcasting has announced plans for an HD-capable version of its Sky+ receiver next year and cable companies NTL and Telewest, who are in the process of merging, will be rolling out HDTV by the end of 2006 and into 2007. In terms of content, the BBC’s trial simulcast will be joined by a selection of channels from BSkyB. Artsworld, the former subscription arts channel purchased by Sky and now available as part of the company’s standard packages, promises high-definition broadcasts of theatre, opera and ballet, with other channels offering HD broadcasts of sports, cinema, documentaries and US imports. Currently, though, there are no signs that other UK broadcasters yet intend to move to the new format.

Because of the extra costs that consumers will have to make to be able to receive the new, high-quality transmissions, it’s more than likely that HDTV may take longer to achieve full market penetration than other recent innovations such as widescreen, stereo sound or even colour. But with the worldwide market for high-quality broadcast video ever on the increase, it will undoubtedly arrive.