RXdivide: Why are broadcasters holding back on HD?

Welcome to the RXdivide: A series looking at how not every viewer is equal when it comes to receiving television...

Why are broadcasters holding back on HD?
As Ultra HD services begin to take hold, and TVs supporting the new standard are now widely available, it may seem odd that for the main UK broadcasters, HD is still not standard.

Legislation continues to link the the status of Public Service Broadcaster (PSB) to the standard definition versions of ITV, STV, Channel 4, S4C and Channel 5, which means there's no obligation to force the broadcasters to offer their services in HD or even to make their HD channels available in place of the standard definition channels on Electronic Programme Guides.

In a recent consultation between Ofcom, broadcasters, platform operators and other stakeholders in Public Service Broadcasting, ITV again made clear that it "offers HD variants of its services on a purely commercial basis, which is an important revenue stream for PSB channel operators."

For its main channel, this means that the providing the correct regional news service for every household in HD is of a lower priority to commercial concerns. In addition to selling regional advertising, ITV also offers to sell advertising time in so-called 'macro-regions' which lump a number of ITV regions together. For HD viewers, this can mean receiving a very different regional news service than you'd expect - but as far as macro-level advertising goes, it's still the right one. ITV is also unlikely to want to pay any additional cost to regionalise its HD service on Freeview any further, to achieve the same regionality offered on Freesat and Sky.

For ITV's other channels, the commercial emphasis means that they can encrypt the HD feeds of otherwise free-to-air channels and make money from them. There is no legal requirement to force them to do otherwise.

For other channels, it's where you find the HD service that is the problem:
A Channel 4 viewer in London with Sky can enjoy the service in HD on channel 104, whereas viewers in other parts of the country must find it on channel 138.

This is because of advertising regions - only the C4 London advertising region is available in HD, and so legislation that affords the main five channels the top five slots on any channel list stops the HD version of Channel 4 London replacing any other regional advertising services on 104.

Both ITV and Channel 4 have told Ofcom they want the decision as to whether to swap HD/SD services around to be with the broadcasters.

Once again, Channel 4's HD services are subject to commercial concerns, despite the channel being a public corporation of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. It technically does have the satellite capacity to offer some additional ad regions in HD - but cost remains a barrier, especially when the broadcast can use the funds to boost its online service instead, something many broadcasters see as being more important for their long-term survival.

Channel 4 also has a long-standing deal with Sky, ensuring that HD offshoots of most of its free-to-air channels remain behind a paywall. And as its relationship with Sky blossoms with co-operation in sports, arts and on-demand output, it's probably no surprise that C4 has fallen out with rival satellite platform Freesat, resulting in the HD and on-demand service being taken off Freesat in 2018.

And with HD services not afforded the same prominence or must-carry rules, it does mean that HD versions of designated PSB channels aren't yet available everywhere: S4C in Wales can't currently broadcast its service in HD on Freeview - there's simply not enough capacity at the moment to broadcast an extra HD service to all of Wales. Admittedly, it lost out on its capacity when it shut the first incarnation of its HD service due to funding cuts, but had it continued to have broadcast, then Channel 4 - who took over S4C's HD slot in Wales - would be locked out of Freeview HD in Wales.

As for the BBC, recent documents suggest they are continuing to work on a solution where regional programming is inserted via the internet rather than broadcasting every region in HD via satellite. The cost of delivering more regional services in HD would have been easier to carry had the broadcaster not taken on the cost of given over 75s on Pension Credit a free TV licence from next year - previously the DWP had paid for the free licences. Much of the BBC's

With no changes in the law forthcoming, and broadcasters seemingly unwilling or unable to afford the cost of moving to HD by default, it increasingly looks likely that they are almost trying to skip the HD on linear TV issue, putting resources in IP/on-demand services instead.