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BBC HD's Nagler on... BBC One HD

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Next month, the BBC's flagship channel BBC One will make the transition to high definition, bringing popular shows such as EastEnders, The Apprentice and Film 2010 into pin sharp detail. However, BBC One HD is as much the result of a happy accident as a clearly thought-out strategy by the BBC. After Five HD failed to launch on digital terrestrial television - essentially Freeview - the BBC got a rare opportunity to use the vacant HD slot and push forward its HD plans quicker than first expected. Danielle Nagler, the BBC's head of HD and 3D, joined Digital Spy to discuss HD programme-making, DTT capacity and sprucing up The Queen Vic.

When it launches on Sky, Virgin Media, Freeview and Freesat on November 3, BBC One HD will broadcast a range of programmes produced in native HD, including The One Show and new series Wallace and Gromit: World of Inventions, with the rest of the BBC One schedule being upscaled to the higher transmission quality. In the early days of HD television, there were horror stories of broadcasters suffering massive costs in upgrading creaking sets and tatty costumes to avoid embarrassment under the scrutiny of HD. However, Nagler said that the costs of producing HD content are now "not high to nothing", as the technology has become cheaper and techniques have improved.

"When The Weakest Link went to Scotland they needed a new set, so we just made it in HD," said Nagler. "EastEnders [which goes HD on Christmas Day] has not had a new set, they have repainted The Queen Vic [after the fire in September] and done a bit of rebuilding to HD standards. They replaced a bit of brickwork that needed attention, put some creepers up and one flat has been redecorated by a girlfriend coming in. It's not a major revamp. That's partly because our understanding of how to use HD has grown. HD is not actually as unforgiving as people think, you just need to know how to work with it. Sometimes sets need refreshing, sometimes they don't."

Nagler said that the BBC had always planned to launch BBC One HD as part of its commitment to the higher picture quality. However, any new BBC channels must always be made available on the subscription-free Freeview platform. When Freeview HD commercially launched in spring 2010, the plan was for the BBC to have just one HD slot for BBC HD, with ITV1 HD and Channel 4 HD taking the others. A fourth slot was earmarked for the launch of Five HD, but the broadcaster opted against a launch due to its then financial problems, meaning Ofcom handed the capacity back to the BBC.

"We clearly knew what we wanted to do with it and I guess we were ready to offer a BBC One HD and had enough HD content for it to be a good use of a HD channel slot," said Nagler. "We also felt that the rating growth of HD content was faster than expected, so while our plan had been to launch BBC One HD later, the rate of growth meant that now is not a bad time to be offering the most mainstream and popular channel in HD."

Despite ruling out the launch of Five HD on Freeview until at least 2012, Channel 5 made the channel available on Sky and Virgin Media this summer. Asked whether she was surprised by the move, Nagler said that the broadcaster - which is now owned by Express Newspapers proprietor Richard Desmond - clearly decided that the benefits of launching Five HD on Freeview failed to outweigh the costs.

"DTT distribution is not cheap and it's quite hard to figure out for a commercial broadcaster at what point the investment starts to pay off," she said. "Obviously, if you are ad-funded you have to think quite carefully about when you go in and whether there are opportunities to go in later, because Freeview HD is growing fast but it's still relatively tiny. Getting Five HD onto Freeview was a priority for those involved, we'd very much have liked them to be there, but they took the view that 2010 was not the right timing for them. But I hope that by 2012, assuming the fifth slot becomes available, they'll choose to go for it."

Freeview HD is currently available to more than 50% of the UK population, but figures suggest that just 230,000 homes have purchased equipment to watch the service since its commercial launch five months ago. That puts the platform well behind the 3.2m subscriber base for Sky's HD service, but its growth rate is equivalent to the number of homes that signed up to receive Sky+ HD over the same time period after its launch in 2006. Nagler is convinced that the uptake of Freeview HD will accelerate, because more people now view HD as "the standard for quality in television". The BBC wants everyone to enjoy its content in HD, but taking the technology into the mainstream conjures other problems.

"If you acquired HD for casual reasons, then we have to work a hell of a lot harder to convince you to switch channels to HD," said Nagler. "It's not just the BBC. I spent a lot of time thinking we were doing quite badly, but it's a problem for everyone running a HD channel. You are asking people to remember new channel numbers and change their regular television behaviours, and that is something that takes time. I think even in a tech savvy audience, very often people will admit that they often just forget. We'd like people to switch to HD but we also don't want people to think that SD is a substandard viewing experience."

Following Jay Hunt's departure to become Channel 4's first chief creative officer, BBC One's new controller will be Danny Cohen, previously head of BBC Three. Cohen has never worked on a HD channel before, but Nagler is sure that he will have strong views on how the technology should be used.

"I know Danny watches stuff in HD and all the channel controllers have views on what HD should be, as it's now the default broadcast standard for the BBC," she said. "We now have a system where if someone wants to make a programme in SD they have to get permission first. We'll be making SD programmes for some time, but it's now the exception rather than the norm. The vast majority of BBC One programmes are either in HD or are actively going to HD. The last big plank will be network news, which will probably go in early 2013 when the news teams move to the new Broadcasting House. Songs Of Praise is also going in January, how very public service of us!"

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