The TV times are a-changing

Over the last few days you may have a read quite a bit about the marvel that is High Definition TV (HDTV).
Most of it is true.

Over the last few days you may have a read quite a bit about the marvel that is High Definition TV (HDTV). Most of it is true. With its razor sharp images and stunning rendition of colours, anyone who sees HDTV in action cannot fail to be impressed.

Broadcasters BSkyB and the BBC are understandably excited by the potential of HDTV, which with pictures of up to 1080 scanning lines undeniably makes a significant technological leap from the 675-line standard of current sets.

What better showcase for the new technology than that four-yearly armchair paradise the World Cup? Sky’s new HDTV package attracted high interest from consumers in the run-up to the tournament, which will be broadcast in HD by the BBC.

But all has not entirely gone to plan. Delivery of Sky’s HD set-top boxes from their manufacturer has failed to keep up with demand from the broadcaster’s customers, leading to delays in some installations.

The result? A few thousand disgruntled football fans and a moderate measure of adverse publicity for Sky. In the long run it will make not a jot of difference to those willing and able to spend the thousands of pounds needed to upgrade to HDTV.

But this storm in a satellite dish shows how high-profile an area broadcast engineering has become in a nation that counts watching the magic rectangle among its inalienable rights.

In fact, HDTV is far from the biggest game in town when it comes to pushing back the boundaries of TV technology. That honour goes to the so-called Digital Switchover, the process that will see every single UK television viewer move from analogue to digital reception by the early part of the next decade. Fail to buy the required digital-ready set, or convert your existing televisions, and get ready for a blank screen.

We are told by those leading the switchover exercise that it is well on course, with some 70 per cent of households already equipped with satellite, cable or Freeview equipment and therefore set fair for the change.

Many in the broadcasting industry, however, believe the real test is yet to come. When the analogue signal is switched off, and digital is the only option, the network will have to perform well above its current rather patchy level of performance in order not to leave people in the dark. It is worth remembering that when analogue television is not operating at peak performance, you can still watch it, albeit with a fuzzy screen. If digital doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.

A massive exercise will be needed in aerial upgrades, recorder retuning and digi-box installation.

Most problematically of all, several million people, many of them elderly and on low incomes, will need to have the message hammered home that a technology which has been with them all their lives, namely analogue television, is redundant, and a new era has begun.

We predict TV technology will become one of the political hot potatoes of the latter part of the decade.

Andrew Lee


The Engineer & The Engineer Online