BSkyB high-def rollout tests Murdoch regime

BBC HD began preview of upcoming programs

LONDON — The launch — unlike the picture quality — may have been less than perfect due to a shortage of hardware, but the rollout of BSkyB’s high-definition service may prove to be a key turning point as the battle for Blighty’s affluent TV audiences shifts up a gear.

Sky HD finally bowed May 22 making it the U.K.’s first nationwide high-definition service.

The move could prove the most important test yet of topper James Murdoch’s regime since he took over running Europe’s biggest paybox 2½ years ago.

“High definition is very important for Sky,” says Accenture’s media partner Theresa Wise. “It will help to differentiate Sky and gives them at least a year’s breathing space before cable can fully respond.”

“I don’t think Sky HD will be a massive way of driving new subscriptions,” says media consultant Paul Robinson. “However, it will be valuable in retaining existing subscribers and of preventing churn because at the moment no one else is offering this service.

“It also gives an important message to the City that Sky remains a dynamic business.”

For a one-off payment of £299 ($538) for the set top box plus an additional $18 monthly subscription, auds get a selection of movie, sports, entertainment, arts and natural history channels — including Discovery and National Geographic — plus a BBC HD web.

The U.K. takes pride in being at the cutting edge of digital TV technologies, but in HD it lags behind the U.S. and Asia.

BSkyB, increasingly threatened by digital terrestrial service Freeview and newly merged cable operator NTL (relaunched next year as Virgin TV), reported keen interest in Sky HD from its 8.1 million subscribers.

Significantly, due to bandwidth restrictions Freeview is unlikely to be able to offer HD until after digital switchover in 2012 although cable operator Telewest has been running a limited service for several months.

The Sky HD launch was timed to ensure that soccer-crazy Blighty would be able to watch the World Cup, which kicks off June 9, in HD.

Alas, the 17,000 U.K. homes to pre-order Sky HD will have to wait until after the tournament due to a set-top box shortage.

“We’re working very hard to resolve the situation,” a Sky spokesman says.

The irony is that although Sky has revolutionized TV sports coverage in the U.K. World Cup soccer games cannot be bought up by pay operators like BSkyB.

This means that BBC HD will transmit World Cup clashes starting with the opening match — Germany vs. Costa Rica — on June 9.

BBC HD started broadcasting a fortnight ago with a test stream previewing upcoming programs as first step in a 12-month HD trial.

Over the May 27-28 weekend, the Beebwas to give British viewers that have the technology a chance to see both “Bleak House” and “Planet Earth,” the Discovery, NHK, CBC co-prod, in HD.

Some games in next month’s Wimbledon tennis tournament are to be broadcast by the BBC in HD.

Pubcaster’s director of television Jana Bennett says: “The experience of watching ‘Planet Earth’ in high-definition is breathtaking.”

Bennett warns that broadcasters who don’t come onboard the HD bandwagon risk further audience erosion as people instead watch HD DVDs or games.

It is a message that BSkyB needs no reminding of.

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