Written by Technology, TV

Watching HD TV

At home, I have two ways to watch broadcast HD television. I can either watch via Freeview or Sky HD (Strictly speaking, my TV also has Freesat built in, but I’ve never enabled it).

In a Freeview world, should I chose to watch one of the biggest channels: BBC1, BBC2, ITV, C4 or C5 I can do one of two things:

– I can go to channels 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 for SD video
– Or if I care about HD, I can go to 101, 102, 103 or 104 (Channel 5 chose not to be in HD on Freeview for financial reasons)

It’s a pretty simple choice, and the numbers aren’t hard to remember. Freeview puts all its HD channels in one place. Additional HD channels are available between 105 and 111, with the HD versions of CBeebies and CBBC placed in amongst the children’s section in the 120s.

But I spend most of my time within the Sky world because it lets me record. And with Sky HD, it’s more complicated:

– For mostly SD channels, I go to 101, 102, 103, 104 or 105 for SD video. Except BBC2 is in HD.
– For HD channels, I go to 141, 102, 178, 227 or 171.

Huh? That’s not very intuitive. I have a big HD TV set (the average set sold these days is over 40″), so why doesn’t everything default to HD?

The main reason is cost.

All the major TV broadcasters have regional variants, and each one requires an additional broadcast stream. That means quite a lot of money spent on satellite feeds. Sky will happily serve audiences with the right version dependent on their subscribers’ postcodes, but the costs are not to be sniffed at. ITV has 23 different regions, with sub-opts within some larger regions sometimes offering localised news, but all offering localised advertising. BBC One, meanwhile, has 18 regions (all of which can be found from 950 onwards on Sky), and BBC Two has four – one for each nation. Both Channel Four and Channel 5 sell regional advertising and have several versions too.

Broadcasters have not yet paid for simulcasts of every one of those channels in HD. And because either localised news or advertising is deemed to be very important, the default versions of channels they supply – even to HD homes – is usually the SD version of the channel. That’s because they want to maximise local ad ratings. The HD versions will have London/national advertising. And for BBC One, there’s those awkward empty segments where the local news would be. The exception is BBC Two which only has four variants and carries some specific non-news nations programming. BBC2 HD England has been made available, with other nations currently getting SD – hence me getting BBC2 HD on 102. On the other hand, the other nations get BBC1 in HD whereas in England, we don’t.

Sky allows broadcasters to chose which version of their channels get highest billing. If you have a simple non-regionalised channel in both SD and HD, channels usually choose to place their HD version in the lower EPG slot in HD homes and the SD version in non-HD homes. They call this channel swapping.

The second reason for poor EPG positioning is a choice made by broadcasters.

EPG positions are paramount, and broadcasters hoard them carefully – the lower the numbers the better. The PSBs get 101 to 105 on Sky by right. Sky itself has the next batch, and it’s notable that most of the most watched channels appear at the top of EPGs in the lower positions. But broadcasters can shuffle their own decks, and that leads to some odd things.

ITV offers the following to HD homes on Sky:

– 103 ITV (SD)
– 118 ITV2 HD
– 119 ITV3 HD
– 120 ITV4 HD
– 123 ITV Encore HD
– 131 ITV+1 (SD)
– 178 ITV HD
– 179 ITV Be (SD)
– 180 ITV2+1 (SD)
– 193 ITV3+1 (SD)
– 206 ITV4+1 (SD)
– 207 ITV Be+1 (SD)
– 208 ITV Encore+1 (SD)
– 225 ITV2 (SD)

The ITV2-4 variants are Sky HD exclusive, and ITV Encore is available only to Sky subscribers in either SD or HD versions. And ITV Be doesn’t have an HD version on Sky, but does on Virgin Media!

This leads to the oddity that in Sky HD homes, ITV2, 3, and 4 are much more obvious in HD than the main channel. Indeed ITV+1 is considered more important than ITV HD judging by EPG positions. I assume careful analysis of BARB TV ratings has been used to make this decision, because it would imply that a show on ITV gets more share from a +1 channel than the HD version. If that’s not the case, then they should swap them.

Still, ITV is positively sensible compared with Channel 4’s line-up:

– 104 Channel 4 (SD)
– 135 Channel 4+1 (SD)
– 136 E4 HD
– 137 E4+1 (SD)
– 138 More 4 HD
– 139 More 4+1 (SD)
– 140 4seven (SD)
– 202 E4 (SD)
– 227 Channel 4 HD
– 231 More 4 (SD)
– 315 Film 4 HD
– 316 Film 4+1 (SD)
– 342 Film 4 (SD)
– 360 4 Music (SD)

Aside from the film and music channels, Channel 4 can reshuffle this deck to their liking pretty much. So why on earth is Channel 4 HD buried in an EPG position beyond 200? Are they really saying that E4+1 or More 4+1’s channel positions are more important? Do they offer greater share than Channel 4 HD? If not, then they should reshuffle their deck.

The question then is when are broadcasters going to upgrade their offerings?

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According to recent Ofcom research, 70% of UK homes have an HD TV, yet only 45% have an HD service.

There are probably reasons for this. While it’s just about impossible to buy a non-HD TV today, there are older and cheaper models in the marketplace. Older sets and set-top boxes aren’t HD compatible, while Sky charges a premium for HD.

Looking at Sky’s 2014 Annual Report it would seem to infer (P138) that of their 10.7m homes, 5.2m have Sky+HD, or 49% of Sky’s customers.

You would imagine that with Sky’s next update, more of their customers will have HD than not. So broadcasters might want to showcase their HD offerings a little more visibly.

It’s a shame that there’s not a technically smarter solution – perhaps having a flag on the HD channel that points to SD programming at certain points to show the right programming.

And incidentally, if HD satellite capacity is expensive, how on earth is this going to work with 4K? Good luck getting your regional news in 4K via a broadcast platform any time soon!

In the meantime, it’s a bit like the old days of Ceefax: I have to keep a load of numbers in my head to watch the big channels in HD. That’s a poor solution.

[Updated following Chris’s comment below]