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BBC HD's Nagler on... picture quality

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BBC HD
As BBC One prepares to make the historic shift to high definition on Sky, Virgin Media, Freesat and Freeview, some viewers will greet the change with a certain sense of trepidation. In August 2009, the BBC introduced new encoders that caused the bitrate on the existing BBC HD channel to drop by nearly 40% from 16Mbs to 9.7Mbs. Satellite TV viewers subsequently reported various problems with the channel's picture quality and sound, with some accusing the BBC of failing to deliver a true HD service. The ensuing controversy led to a petition being lodged at Number 10 and an investigation being run by the BBC Trust. Ultimately, the Trust found in the BBC's favour and the protests eased off slightly, but Digital Spy asked Danielle Nagler, head of BBC HD, whether BBC One HD could face similar controversy.

When it launches on November 3, BBC One HD will air a high definition simulcast of the BBC One schedule, including some programmes in native HD and others upscaled to the higher broadcast quality. Nagler confirmed that BBC HD and BBC One HD will be 'stat muxed', which involves using a statistical multiplexor to analyse the incoming traffic and dynamically change the interleaving to utilise all available capacity. She expressed her hope that the upscaled programmes will look good, but stressed that the BBC is "not trying to pretend" that every programme on BBC One HD will be true HD.

"I am as confident as I can be that we will manage the two channels alongside each other to allow them to trade bitrates as they need to," said Nagler. "I am hoping that [the approach] in general will give the best quality pictures that we can get. [However] that doesn't mean that there will be no technical issues whatsoever with the launch of a new channel. That is not something I could ever guarantee."

Nagler said that part of her mission is to guide the BBC production teams through the process of creating HD content of the highest possible quality. She was pleased with the debut HD broadcast of Holby City last week , which was not flawless but a "big improvement on SD". After viewing early test footage of EastEnders - which will go HD on Christmas Day - she has been further encouraged by the achievable quality.

"The process has been taken very seriously in terms of getting an EastEnders look in HD, but when you are making a lot of changes, sometimes things go wrong," she said. "I tell producers that we work with that we absolutely want them to take the tools that HD gives them and use them creatively to figure out what they can do. That means sometimes mistakes are made and it's fine to make mistakes, because otherwise you are not going to learn. The important thing is to make the mistake once and don't do it again."

All through the BBC HD picture quality controversy, a committed group of viewers maintained pressure on Nagler to respond to their concerns about a perceived degradation in the broadcast quality. The campaign, which argued that the BBC was not upholding its responsibility to deliver true HD, led to a series of blogs from BBC staff and some face-to-face meetings with the protesters. Ultimately, the BBC Trust found that the picture quality on BBC HD was satisfactory, while independent tests run by consumer group Which? also sided with the BBC. Despite the controversy giving her a few headaches, Nagler took some positives from the experience.

"In a sense, I was very pleased that there was a group of people who cared and felt that the BBC had clear responsibilities in HD, because I think that is how I feel," she said. "The other thing that came through was that the equipment people have to receive HD is developing very, very fast. The displays that you can now buy for relatively low sums of money are very good. They handle pictures in a different way to what five years ago were high-end displays. It's not a very mature technology yet. Whereas an SD television, wherever it comes from, will handle pictures in broadly the same way, the HD set-ups will do different things. I am responsible for BBC HD and what goes into the broadcasting chain to make sure that it's as good as possible, but what I can't do is control the point from when the picture goes out into someone's home and how they view it. We also know that the more you look for errors in a picture, the more you see them."

Nagler said that she also took from the picture quality debate that people "want and expect" different things from HD. She said that "quite a lot of the discussion was about subjective rather than objective judgements about the style of HD that represents good HD". Nagler noted that it would be "relatively easy" for her to stipulate that all BBC programmes must be shot with sharp, crisp lines as with 'classic' HD, but that's not the BBC way.

"We don't do that because we don't do that anywhere in the BBC. What we do is identity services that can deliver content of a broadcast quality and make sure the tools we allow people to use are very thoroughly tested," she said. "We provide advice, but we don't tell people that they must do it in such a way. That has an upside and a downside. It means that a lot of drama is shot progressive or with a certain 'filmic' look, and there are people who don't like that. That is perfectly fine as some people expect HD to be very sharp, with very crisp lines. There are times when we will do that but there are other times when we will do other things with the technology. I think if you look at the SD channels then there is not a uniform look to everything. I quite like that, but clearly there are other people who don't."

Nagler said that she retains a tight quality control on the output of BBC HD, meaning some programmes supposedly produced in HD will ultimately be rejected. She said that some producers fail to understand how to use the HD cameras and technology in either the capture or post-production stages, and so the resulting content fails to meet up to the BBC's standards for native HD.

"Usually there are things that we didn't know about that failed to make it HD. Very occasionally it is something that was commissioned in HD that has not been delivered in HD," she said. "BBC One HD is different because it is a channel that shows HD and upscaled programming. Some programmes will get shown, but they would not be classed as HD programmes. Others will have lower HD content, and there may be programmes that think they are HD, but they aren't. But that's the nature of simulcast channels."

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