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U.K., France prepare for HD in '06

European broadcasters are finally seeing the big picture. Literally. Members of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) are engaged in intense discussions over a European HD broadcast standard. It's a race to secure a standard before two commercial HDTV services are launched in 2006.

Currently, two commercial broadcasters, Britain's BSkyB and France's TF1, have plans for HD service. BSkyB's HD announcement was low-key, with Chief Executive James Murdoch mentioning it at an investor conference in London. Specifics aren't clear, but it will be a pay service providing dedicated HD channels and access to events acquired in the HD format. TF1's plans are still taking shape. The French broadcaster says its digital satellite service, TPS, will launch an HD service. Other European networks are expected to announce HD plans for 2006.

Europeans now have one HD offering: Euro1080 (a 1080-line-interlace service distributed primarily to theaters). Because that service isn't associated with any established broadcast organizations, the entry of BSkyB and TF1 into HD is key. Only five years ago, Europeans considered HDTV a waste of bandwidth and energy.

But the rollout of HDTV across the U.S., as well as in Australia, Korea and Japan, has attracted European attention. Europe must now decide if it will have one HD standard or several, as the U.S. has. The decision is 720-line progressive (which provides less picture information but is better for fast-motion content, such as sports), 1080-line interlace (more picture information but better for non-sports action), or a scan standard that incorporates both. That scenario will give European broadcasters the type of freedom afforded their U.S. counterparts. And with consumer display devices capable of showing both, there's a good chance the flexible approach will triumph. The question is whether personal biases can be set aside in the interest of industry advancement.

Just how quickly will Europe adopt HDTV? Thomson Broadcast & Media Solutions President Marc Valentin expects the satellite-based model to accelerate the consumer adoption of HD in Europe at rates faster than those afforded by the U.S. broadcast model. Projections call for about 18 million Europeans to be watching HDTV by 2008.

One ironic aspect of the transition: It's playing catch-up with its own production capabilities. The BBC announced it will shoot all non-news content in HD-despite having no plans to broadcast in the format. And Media Pro, a production company based in Spain, is shooting games for the Spanish soccer league in HD but not for a Spanish broadcaster. Voom subscribers in the U.S. will get to see the improved picture quality. Toss in complete HD coverage of the 2006 World Cup soccer championships from Germany, and the picture becomes clear: Europe is ready for its HD close-up.