Further Update:When ITV HD became a simulcast service ITV1 HD, it was made available on Sky HD. ITV2, 3 & 4 HD are exclusively available to Sky HD customers.
Update: This article was originally published in May 2008. In 2009 Sky deployed a new version of the Sky+ HD firmware, that provided the new look EPG. In addition it added the ability to decode H222 streams, and so with a manual “add channels” Sky HD viewers can now see ITV HD, albeit in a clunky way without the standard EPG.
Today Freesat launched. Arguments as to its relevance will no doubt take place, personally I think that Freesat-from-Sky, while a canny offering by Sky was never a totally ideal switchover choice when there was small print caveats over the lifetime of the smartcards. Should Sky ever move to a 3rd generation of Videoguard smartcards, you weren’t guaranteed a replacement. Given that the move appears to be towards broadcasting in the clear anyway, this perhaps doesn’t matter so much, but as a consumer you want a platform that is expected to gain channels over time, and not lose them.
Freesat has more coverage than Freeview, more channels and tantalisingly for those who’ve bought the big HD Ready flat panels, HD channels. The BBC HD Channel, which quietly moved from channel to service last year, and also the ITV HD offering. The BBC channel is just that, with a channel number and no complications to access, and is already available on Sky HD or any other HD Ready decoder. The ITV hd service isn’t a channel proper though, it’s going to be accessed via a Red Button prompt that will be visible on ITV1 when the programme is in HD.
This is all to keep the service exclusive to Freesat. Viewers will have to go through multiple stages to get to the HD version of their programmes, have annoying on screen graphics and all to prevent the many thousands of Sky HD viewers manually tuning into the service. (It’s being broadcast in the hitherto unseen ITU H222 encapsulation, which means that only Freesat receivers running the special application can access the H264 stream).
So it sounds a bit faffy, and was probably more work for them to set up the encoding for, and reduced their ability to use off-the-shelf monitoring as they could do for a standard DVB service. Will the forthcoming HD PVR models be able to record, pause and rewind the playback of this HD stream? Does the app allow you to control subtitle display and access to audio description? Can you still get to the normal EPG to search and scan what else is on? Is there an annoying “clunk” when you change channels as the app unloads and control is passed back to the core Set Top application?
The upside, is that this channel does not have to be tied to ITV1, so if an ITV2 acquisition was HD, there is nothing to stop them linking on the HD Stream. However, itv.com/hd talks solely about ITV1.
Overall I can’t see how this can be anything less than sub-optimal experience, and history tells us that this doesn’t work. ITV Digital was not saved by hordes of people who signed up to see the ITV Sport Channel. Defections from Virgin Media haven’t really continued after the initial shock of losing the Sky core channels.
By not paying Sky for an EPG listing, you’ve reduced the potential audience for HD Adverts (do these attract a premium in the same way colour does over black & white in print?). Going a stage further and custom encapsulating your content is just missing the point of Freesat isn’t it, that stuff isn’t encrypted as there isn’t much point anymore (what with newer satellites providing footprints more aligned to just the UK and Sky not paying for channels anymore)?
Mark Thomson has also spoke today about offering iPlayer & Kangaroo over the ethernet port on Freesat boxes. I wonder, because I don’t know, if the SD boxes are specified to include H264 compression and DVB-S2 transmission. Doing an iPlayer style app would be much more efficient/feasible over lower bandwidth ADSL lines with H264. If you also included DVB-S2 in the future you could reduce the transponders required, if you were willing to lose older sky boxes that only supported MPEG2 and DVB-S. That only becomes feasible if Freesat takes off in the same way as Freeview has. Only time will tell if Freesat has arrived too late for the party, or has provided a cheaper HD upgrade at the right moment.