High-definition television (HDTV), already available in five markets around the world, is set to take off in Europe next, a broadcasting conference has been told.
By Peter Feuilherade
BBC Monitoring in Amsterdam
TV industry executives in Amsterdam for the International Broadcasting Convention (IBC), Europe's biggest broadcasting trade show, say HDTV could also prove a bonanza for consumer electronics manufacturers as the European market appears ready to accept the new technology.
The lack of HD content is slowing HDTV adoption
"We really think that 2004/2005 will be the year of high definition," said Ghislain Lescuyer of broadcast equipment manufacturer Thomson.
Market research suggests that more than 4.5 million households in Europe will switch on to HDTV by 2008.
HDTV gives superior quality images compared with standard definition TV images, but they need to be filmed on special cameras.
The HDTV market is associated with expensive flat-panel televisions. But HD signals can also be received for about one-third of the price on HD-capable cathode ray tube sets, which are forecast to form the bulk of sales in Europe.
Viewers also have to buy an HD-compatible set-top box.
HDTV services already exist in Japan, US, Canada, Australia and South Korea, so Europe has some catching up to do.
Japan is the TV technology leader, but the global HD market is focused on America, where more than 40 HD channels are on offer.
Several European broadcasters have announced definite plans for HDTV services, counter to the belief of some analysts who say high prices of HDTV sets would put off consumers.
The Belgian broadcaster Euro1080 launched the first commercial satellite broadcasts of HDTV in Europe at the start of 2004.
The BBC intends to produce all of its content in HD by 2010. Sky in the UK and M6, TPS and TF1 in France are all planning HD services, with TPS promising a 2005 launch
followed by Sky in 2006.
And Premiere World, Germany's multichannel pay-TV platform, will launch three HDTV channels in November 2005.
Premiere CEO Georg Kofler, speaking at IBC, said: "The talking is over. We're making HD real in Germany, which I believe is the perfect market for HDTV.
"Our viewers have a large appetite for technology, and we are targeting an initial 300,000 to 500,000 homes with higher than usual incomes, and keen on new technology."
The cost of HD production equipment is also coming down and broadcasters hope viewers will share their enthusiasm about the superior quality of high definition images compared with standard definition.
But sales of HDTV sets in Europe are not expected to take off until 2006. That year's football World Cup in Germany is expected to be a major driver.
The analyst firm Datamonitor predicts that Germany, the UK and France will lead the adoption of HDTV.
But it warns that take-up rates will be slow initially because of the high cost of HDTV sets (currently just under $5,000) and the current limited availability of high-definition content.
"Although televisions remain high priced and few operators are ready for HD broadcasts, momentum for the introduction of HDTV in Europe is unstoppable," said James Healey, senior media and broadcasting technologies analyst at Datamonitor.
"Consumer electronics manufacturers are already selling HDTVs; Sony even has large displays in 180 retail stores across Europe promoting the superior picture quality, and broadcasters are beginning to record content in HD."
Datamonitor expects that HDTV services will first be deployed by western European satellite TV operators, who are determined to maintain their technology leadership.
But the industry also needs to resolve issues such as competing technologies, which are likely to confuse customers.
While the first deployments of HDTV around the world have used MPEG-2 HD, Microsoft is touting Windows Media 9 as an alternative.
HDTVs promise superior quality images
Datamonitor predicts that although Microsoft's commercial clout might guarantee it the leading market share, MPEG-4 will eventually win about two-thirds of the market.
Chris Swires, a producer of the IBC Conference, warned that Europe had to settle on one common standard for HDTV.
"Can we find consensus or will Europe sink into a multi-standard morass?" he asked.
Although the large terrestrial broadcasters are keen to offer HD services, industry analysts point out that capacity problems on the terrestrial networks will rule out their deployment in most markets until the analogue network is switched off.
But equipment manufacturers and broadcasters alike appear determined to capitalise on the new technology.
The UK firm Pace Micro Technology unveiled its first HD set-top box platform at IBC 2004.
Neil Gaydon, Pace's worldwide sales and marketing director, said: "HD is happening now in Europe, and broadcasters cannot afford to ignore it."