Television's wide boys may have to wait: British opposition may sink a European strategy for high-definition TV, leaving viewers in the dark, says Steve Homer

THE European summit in Edinburgh this week could have a bigger effect on the television we will be watching next century than the Government's Green Paper on the future of the BBC.

Failure of the summit to reach agreement on refinancing the EC would sound the death-knell of Europe's strategy for High Definition Television, which promises a picture one-third wider than that of today's sets and almost four times as clear, with cinema-quality sound.

At present, the HDTV strategy is in tatters. At the Council of Ministers meeting last month, Britain, supported by the Danes and some of the poorer EC countries, blocked a move to spend 850m ecus ( pounds 685m) on preparations for introducing the European HDTV standard, HD-MAC, and conventional-quality wide-screen television. Britain thinks there is no demand for HDTV, and that investment now would simply distort any future market. Holland and France, however, are keen to help their electronic companies, Philips and Thomson, to recoup part of the huge sums they have invested in HDTV research.

For many in the broadcasting industry, this impasse will not be such bad news: they consider that the European system is beginning to look so out of date that it should be abandoned. Their fears are based on the rapid development of digital television, and the unexpected benefits it offers. This system seems to be gaining so many American supporters that the United States looks certain to select it for introduction in 1995.

In the current analogue systems, the television picture is divided into lines (625 in Europe and 525 in the US and Japan), each of which is transmitted as a wave carrying information about brightness and colour. In digital systems, the lines are divided into individual picture elements, called pixels, each of which is assigned a colour and brightness value. In its raw state, the digital picture contains more information, and so requires wider channels for transmission. However, researchers have developed tricks to reduce the amount of information that needs to be sent.

The colour and brightness of pixels is not random, so by coding blocks rather than individual pixels, enormous amounts of data can be saved. For example, all the pixels on an area of skin will be closely related in terms of colour and brightness, and patches of blue sky will be made of pixels of closely related colours. These can, therefore, be described simply in mathematical formulas.

The other way to reduce the data that have to be sent is to transmit only the information that changes from frame to frame.

As the technology has developed, so has the ability to squeeze signals, without significantly reducing picture quality. A satellite channel, which today can be used for one standard television signal, could tomorrow be used for one, or possibly two, HDTV channels, or more than 10 standard definition stations.

Although digital television still requires a great deal of research in some areas, it may move into commercial operation, through cable television companies and programme providers, before the end of this month. These companies use satellites to deliver high-quality television signals. The encoders required to convert the signal from analogue to digital cost well over dollars 500,000 each, but such an outlay is viable because only one satellite channel, instead of two or four, now needs to be leased.

Cheap domestic digital television is not far away. At present, most urban areas in the US have access to sophisticated cable systems, but to cover the rural market, the aerospace and engineering company, Hughes, has developed DirectTV to beam 150 channels into individual homes, through small antennas. The system will be launched in mid-1994, and an antenna will cost less than dollars 700 ( pounds 450).

But what will people watch on this 150- channel digital television? There will be some niche channels - educational, sport, adult entertainment and the like - but most capacity will be devoted to pay-per- view (PPV) films and special events.

American cable operators have discovered that the best way to sell popular movies is to have them starting every 15 minutes or so on different channels; that way viewers are never more than 15 minutes from the start of a movie they may prefer to watch and are willing to pay to have the signal

unscrambled.

This inevitably gobbles up channel capacity, so it is not surprising that cable television is one of the businesses pressing hardest for digital compression.

Since satellite companies will soon be able to supply as many channels as a current cable system, the cable operators are running hard to stay ahead. Quantum, an experimental system in New York, is already supplying up to 150 channels to thousands of homes in the Bronx, even without digital compression.

The main proponents of Europe's HD- MAC system, Philips and Thomson, are heavily involved in American digital HDTV consortia; News International and Canal Plus, the French independent broadcaster, agreed last month to join forces on digital research; and SES, the company that owns the Astra satellite system used by BSkyB, has said it aims to be carrying digital test transmissions by 1995.

Philips has said publicly that if the 850m ecu package is not agreed, it will virtually abandon HD-MAC work. The stark fact remains that while some demand for wide- screen television does appear to exist, an HDTV standard has yet to emerge, because a combination of the system with today's television technology has little support. When large, affordable, hang-on-the-wall television sets become available, an HDTV market will follow, but that is unlikely before the end of the century.

Many Department of Trade and Industry officials believe that HD-MAC should be allowed to die a graceful death, a wish that may well be granted when on 1 January the presidency of the Council of Ministers passes to the Danes, who are almost as strongly opposed as the British to funding it. HD-MAC is about to die.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Johnny Handle, Northumberland, Ted Relph, President of Lakeland Dialect Society, and Sid Calderbank, Lancashire, founder of the National Dialect Day
newsMeet the enthusiasts determined to stop them dying out
News
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Sport
Rio Ferdinand returns for QPR
sportRio Ferdinand returns from his three-game suspension today
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross. Argyll, has remained derelict for more than 25 years
arts + ents
News
people

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
Sport
Billy Twelvetrees will start for England against Australia tomorrow with Owen Farrell dropping to the bench
rugbyEngland need a victory against Australia today
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
books
Sport
Tyson Fury poses outside the Imperial War Museum in south London ahead of his fight against Dereck Chisora
boxingAll British heavyweight clash gets underway on Saturday night
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game