Can you remember when black and white television switched over to colour? Well I can't, but apparently it was AMAZING. The point is that in the next ten years we could all be enjoying another TV revolution. This is of course not news to many DS readers, who have been enthusiastic about HD from the outset, but for the majority of people the financial obstacle to enjoying such services remains. An average HD set costs around £1000 and then you have to fork out for a subscription to satellite or cable services with HD channels.
There has been much talk about using the digital terrestrial television (DTT) platform in the future to broadcast HD services, allowing non-satellite and non-cable customers to enjoy the 'wow factor' of HD. Speaking at the conference, Andy Duncan, Channel 4's chief executive, pointed out the importance of having HD on the DTT platform: "Freeview will only remain successful if we take a long term view and it remains competitive. Technology is not standing still and neither will consumers. Channel 4 and all the shareholders in Freeview recognise the need for it to continue to develop. HD will take a long time to establish itself in this country, but we have to take a long term view, and although it's very early days for HD, all the signs are that it is being received very positively by consumers."
Margaret Hodge, the Minister of State for Industry and the regions, also at the conference, would not be drawn on the Ofcom consultation, saying: "I can't anticipate an answer to this. As you know Ofcom has issued its consultation document, and at the end of March we will have to see where we go. We're all thinking about it. We're not very good at predicting what consumers want. Governments aren't very good at it. Industry is slightly better, but none of us are really good at it. I am exceedingly conscious of your concerns on this matter, but you're going to have to wait."
Ofcom has said that its remit as a regulator makes it very hard for it to make decisions on how people are going to use technology, stating that it is not best placed to decide who gets frequencies, which is why it is moving towards an auction of the spectrum. Should the industry be looking at this as a public policy issue, not just 'who bids highest wins'? Hodge adds: "Access, inclusion and those sorts of issues are pretty crucial. Our experience tells us that predicting consumer demand is very difficult in a very fast changing space. Nobody ever thought mobile texting would take off and it did. We don't know whether HDTV will be top of consumers shopping lists, or whether it's going to be access to mobile TV. Deciding how best to establish the market, which the consumer can take advantage of, is the challenge for Ofcom."
It was pointed out to the minister that the UK spectrum belonged to the citizens of this country, and therefore it was the representatives in parliament who should be making these sorts of decisions, not the regulator. "I'm not sure the executive is the best place to make some of these decisions. We need to reflect on that. I completely accept that it is a valuable part of the spectrum, and our job will be to ensure that the auction is designed in such a way to ensure innovation, promote competition and create a market. It is important we try and get it right," Hodge adds. "It's not about maximising money for the treasury. We and Ofcom are clear about that."
A representative of Ofcom commented on the minister's remarks, saying that the approach Ofcom takes is to look at the best evidence that can be provided to inform its consultation, and that it welcomes all parties to supply such information to help inform its decision. But the demand is already there, with sales of HD-ready sets having grown to 3 million and Screen Digest predicting that there will be 12 million HD-ready homes in the UK by 2010. Sky has seen healthy sales of its HD service, and a trial of HD on DTT last summer was also well received. As Channel 4's Andy Duncan points out, surely that is all the "evidence" Ofcom says it needs?
He adds: "The current process and timetable risks closing this debate before it has been publicly discussed, to the long term detriment of the people who live in this country. And overall the urgent issue the government needs to address is [the danger of] moving to a two-tier PSB system in the UK." Duncan confirmed that Channel 4 will not bid for the spectrum for HD services, should Ofcom opt for an auction. "Public service channels should be available in HD for free, and if we have to bid huge amounts of money for spectrum against commercially incentivised people who are going to use it for other purposes, you just won't be able to make it work. That's the danger."
The issue of creating 'HD-haves' and 'HD-have-nots' is not just something that concerns the broadcasters, but manufacturers and retailers too. Steve Dowdle, Sony UK's chief executive, says: "Global manufacturers are making them (HDTVs), because the rest of the world is saying, 'we are going there.' It will be a real shame if - on the PSB side in the UK - we suddenly stop. Once the auction is done, and the spectrum has gone, it will never come back. I know people have called it the 'two-tier' TV society; I would call it the 'two-class' TV society."
John Clare, chief executive of DSGI (aka Dixons), also thinks it's important to see it from the consumer's point of view. "It's an opportunity which we will all regret in years to come if we fail to seize it. The consumer has paid for digital switchover through the licence fee, or for digital services. One of the persuasive arguments to get people to switch is HDTV. After switchover there's risk that Ofcom will auction off spectrum to the highest bidder. I don't know if I need to dissuade Ofcom from this course of action, or - as has been intimated once or twice today and to me privately before this conference - that Ofcom are being required to this, and that it is the government behind them that needs to be dissuaded. Within government I'm not sure whether I need to address the DCMS, the DTI or the treasury. If I don't fully understand the politics, then you can bet my customers don't either," he says.
"Our customers expect HD on Freeview," Clare adds. "We measure that 65% of customers expect HD services on Freeview and that number is growing rapidly." DSGi is doing monthly research in its stores, and the latest results indicate that 84% were aware of switchover and 92% were aware of HDTV. 71% had purchased - or plan to purchase - HD-ready sets. Clare jokes: "The remaining 29% might be disappointed because we only sell HD-ready sets." So the confidence from the retailer's point of view is clear. HD is here, and people want it, so let's make more widely available. "I'm sure other technologies may come along in the future that will allow for HD services on terrestrial some time down the road. But be aware, switchover is here now. The customer messages are going out now. Their equipment is being upgraded now. And we need a way of getting HD on terrestrial quickly," says Clare.
There was widespread praise at the summit from all sides on how broadcasters, retailers, manufacturers, the regulator, government and other organisations had worked together successfully regarding digital switchover, when many thought the task was too big a mountain to climb, given the differing interests of each party. But with awareness of Freeview increasing, 9 million homes currently with the service, and 75% of the population now enjoying digital television, that collaborative approach and the cohesive messages from retailers and broadcasters have clearly worked. Everyone taking part in the summit agreed that if digital switchover could be achieved, then a similar collaborative approach to introducing HD to a wider audience was not a completely impossible task.
Earlier in her speech Hodge said that partnerships with government, retailers and broadcasters were the key to "ensure that the huge benefits and opportunities on offer in technology are enjoyed by every member of society, every community in our society and the economy of Great Britain." So one hopes that while the minister wasn't able to stay after her speech to hear any of those 'partners'' views, the message about maintaining 'HDforAll' got back to her somehow.
Digital Television Group: www.dtg.org.uk/