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Channel focus > HD strategies

Digital TV Europe September/October 2010

UPC Broadband and the HD future

HD is increasingly important to platform operators, a point underlined by the strategic position at cable operator UPC, which is pres- ent in markets including central and eastern Europe, German-speaking territories and the Netherlands. “In our more advanced markets, we would

be hesitant to go with a channel that is only SD,” says Jeroen Bergman, managing direc- tor, programming, UPC Broadband and man- aging director, Chello Benelux. “HD is getting to the point where it is a de facto component of the service we provide. At a group level, HD is probably less strategically significant than triple play, and it is probably less influential on consumer behaviour than PVR, but it’s clearly an important part of our overall offer.” Bergman says that pattern is broadly true

across all its main markets: “Central and east- ern Europe started a bit slower but now it is catching up with western Europe in its take up of HD and PVR.” Like his channel counterparts, Bergman

says HD will eventually replace SD, though he’s not betting on when that will be: “For me, the best analogy of HD is under-floor heating. Before you have it, you don’t miss it. But if you have it in one house then you move somewhere else which doesn’t, you do.” Having been around the HD market for a number of years, Bergman says the entry of thematic channels into the space has not been the decisive factor is persuading con- sumers that they need to trade up: “The thing that really makes people go out and do some- thing about HD is big sports events like the World Cup. We saw that at Germany 2006 and again around South Africa 2010. Some thematic channels have recognised this and try to time launches to coincide with such sports events.” Aside from this, the other major factor

picked out by Bergman is the decision by free-to-air broadcasters to go HD. “There’s no question that the decision by Dutch public broadcaster NOS to go HD had a big impact. Once they go, it’s as if HD develops a new level of credibility among viewers,” he says. To date, the response to HD among free-to-

air broadcasters has been patchy. “Public broadcasters tend to move first, perhaps because it is more within their remit,” he says.

pay-TV and the DTT space. The same is true for brands like Eurosport, a business whose ethos is built around maximising subscrip- tions on the basic tier. While the early phase of rollout has seen Eurosport HD sitting within designated HD sections of the EPG, the likeli- hood is that the channel will be at the forefront of the trend towards HD channels in basic. In the Nordic region, Eurosport general manag- er Amanda Evans says the arrival of an HD service in basic has been warmly welcomed by platforms looking for a competitive edge: “HD penetration here is high,” says Evans, “so the platforms have welcomed the chance to popu- late the basic tier with HD versions of estab- lished brands.”

Chellomedia has launched HD versions of its Spektrum, Film 1 and Sport 1 channels.

“Commercial broadcasters tend not to react as quickly, either because of rights situations, lack of HD content or because they still see their primary business as advertising air- time.” Outside the Netherlands, there’s been

decent progress in France, where Canal Plus HD, Arte HD, TF1 HD, France 2 HD and M6 HD are all available via digital-terrestrial TV. There’s a similar situation in Scandinavian countries where mainstream broadcasters have all moved into the free-to-air HD chan- nel space. Finland, for example, has three free-to-air HD channels available via cable. One of the more interesting case studies in

Europe is UK commercial broadcaster ITV, which is trying to cash in on BSkyB’s success- ful HD activities. Although ITV1 is available in HD via DTT platform Freeview, new chief executive Adam Crozier has sanctioned a deal which will see HD versions of ITV2, ITV3 and ITV4 offered exclusively to Sky house- holds as part of their standard HD package. The reason for this move is that Crozier believes ITV needs to reinvent itself as a busi- ness, weaning itself off its heavy reliance on ad revenue: “For the past decade ITV has not faced up to the challenges presented by the rise of internet-based platforms, the continu- ing growth of pay-TV and subscription servic- es and the globalisation of content,” he argues. In a clear indictment of previous regimes, he says: “ITV failed to equip itself to compete.” HD is his first attempt to rebalance the business.

Of course, one noticeable development in the last six months has been the way set man- ufacturers and platforms have started talking up 3D. That sounds exciting for consumers, but surely it’s a distraction for channel opera- tors that have only just started to see light at the end of the HD tunnel. Executives includ- ing Cohan are philosophical: “The pace of change is ever greater, but that’s the reality of the business and what makes it so interesting. Our view is that HD is real and happening now. 3D is a little further down the line and is probably more suited to event TV.” As with HD, the speed at which channel operators move into the 3D space will be dic- tated to a large extent by content supply and demand, says Rainbow Media’s Palluth: “The Sundance Channel is mainly built around independent films made on fairly tight budg- ets, so I don’t anticipate it being a considera- tion for the channel in the near future.” David Pounds, chief executive of pro- gramme distributor Electric sky, provides a useful insight into the state of the 3D content market: “We were one of the first companies to start looking at the 3D market from a con- tent sales point of view. At MIPCOM last year, there were four or five channels showing interest in the area. This year, I’d expect it to be more like 40 or 50, which shows how quickly excitement has built in the area.” An interesting footnote is that US cable

giant Comcast’s decision to deliver 100 HD channels, double the previous offering, is put- ting pressure on the operator to reduce its ana- logue tier to free up bandwidth. Subscribers to Comcast’s expanded basic tier have been told to install a digital box or risk losing channels. The message is that HD is on the cusp of pushing SD channels to one side. ●

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