Science: Europe's television set blows a pounds 2bn fuse: Thanks to British pressure, the EC has recanted and wide-screen TV is on its way, says Steve Homer

YOU MAY not have noticed, but last week the Government scored a big success. Single-handedly Britain has forced the European Commission to modify grandiose plans for the future of television.

British intransigence during the past 18 months has led the commission and the other EC governments to realise that Europe's approach to high-definition television (HDTV) had become a case of the emperor's new clothes.

Everyone agrees on one point: that the future of television broadcasting lies with HDTV, because it will provide pictures with much better definition and display them on wide screens; indeed, it will bring cinema style television into the home.

British officials are delighted with their 'victory', but for Europe, which has lost any strategic advantage it had in this technology, it is a fiasco that highlights the lack of co-operation between industry and research and development.

The issue turns on the unspectacular but vital business of setting common technological standards to which all Europe's manufacturers can work. When Japan's work on HDTV threatened to become another technological invasion in the mid-Eighties, the European Commission decided to adapt for HDTV a transmission system already being developed for satellite television. There was nothing much wrong with the system, HD- MAC; but it was totally incompatible with the various digital systems being developed all over the world, and there was just no market for it.

The more flexible digital systems offer numerous advantages. For example, a satellite transponder that today carries one television station, could carry four or maybe 10 digital channels with quality similar to today's television. To meet the expected consumer preference for sharper, wide-screen pictures, the satellite operator will be able to choose whether to use that transponder to carry just one or two higher quality HDTV channels.

The United States is furthest ahead, partly because it has adopted a much more open strategy on HDTV standards. Philips of the Netherlands and Thomson of France are key front runners in America. The latter has already won a lucrative contract to supply digital decoders for the 150-channel DirecTV satellite service.

Europe has now officially abandoned HD-MAC, and is concentrating on wide-screen programming (rather than an immediate move to high-clarity pictures). All HDTV systems use screens one-third wider than today's sets.

But the EC's decision has cut the ground from under such countries as France and Holland, whose companies have invested millions in developing what is now out-of-date technology.

In a damning analysis of Europe's technology policy published last month, the European Policy Forum, a cross-party grouping, claims that 'the development of a European HDTV standard cost the EC taxpayer more than ecu 625m (pounds 496m), before the commission finally admitted defeat'. R & D funding decisions have not been well chosen, it says, but the real problem has been 'standard setting'. Not only have companies wasted resources on HD-MAC, they have also avoided researching more competitive products.

Dermot Nolan, of the management consultants Coopers & Lybrand, who estimates that European companies have invested some pounds 2bn in HDTV, believes that the EC should enable standards rather than dictate them. He points out that its 'ordinary definition' satellite television standard, called D2-MAC, was almost completely ignored by the broadcasting industry, whereas a technical digital video standard called MPEG 2, looks likely to underpin digital television worldwide. The difference, he says, is that D2-MAC was imposed by the EC, and MPEG 2 was thrashed out over years by many companies.

HDTV is not just about television. It will influence the future of computer technology, have applications in electronic cinema and will push forward chip design and other electronic sectors. When getting it right was important, Europe got it badly wrong.