HDTV catching on in Central Europe (update)


    High-definition television, or HDTV, is beginning to catch on in Central Europe, with Poland the clear leader in embracing the new technology. All of Poland's leading broadcasters are either testing or have introduced HDTV on a trial basis and viewers already are able to access at least 10 HD channels, with several others planned in 2008.

    The private broadcaster Telewizja Polsat, which transmits a mixture of domestic entertainment, drama and sports programs as well as leading US series, is the market leader, reaching 96% of Polish homes via terrestrial and satellite systems. Cyfrowy Polsat, Poland's largest satellite platform, has reached 2 million subscribers and offers scores of TV and radio channels.

    Unlike in the US, Japan, Australia and South Korea where HD technology is already well established, it has lagged in Europe, partly due to confusion over what the consumer is getting and whether new HDTV devices really display "true" HD signals. However HD trials are under way in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, while Estonia is already providing HD channels.

    Polsat has already committed roughly 60 million zloties (€16.6 million) to converting its entire broadcast infrastructure to transmit in HD, according to Technical Director Adam Brodziak. As he put it, "HD is the way to be the leader."

    Polsat's biggest investment is in three HD OB vans, purchased from Sony Poland, which will bring live HD production to Central Europe.

    "We chose Sony to help us make the leap to HD because we were excited by the expertise and partnership if offered," Aleksander Myszka, former president of Polsat, said in a statement announcing the deal. "From discussion through to delivery, Sony worked with us to develop HD OB vehicles that met both our broadcast and budget requirements."

    Polsat has already taken delivery of two of the vans, with a third to arrive in spring 2008. The vans are mainly to produce sports programming, and the equipment includes EVS systems for use in slow-motion applications. Unique high-speed cameras that grab the action three times faster than standard cameras will be installed on the third OB van. HD transmission testing began Nov. 2 on the Polsat Sport channel. Aside from sports, the vans have been used for HD production of several concerts, the last one in early December celebrating Polsat's 15th anniversary.

    "Definitely, with this investment, Polsat has put Poland ahead of other countries in this region," Krzysztof Chodkiewicz, country manager for broadcast & professional products at Sony Poland sp. z o.o., said in an interview with FNE. "HD exists here already, so basically, all broadcasters are thinking about investments in HD.

    "Broadcasting in HD is still limited, of course, but broadcasters started last year investing in the equipment and that means the content will come soon," Chodkiewicz added. "HD is booming in Poland."

    The public broadcaster Telewizja Polska, or TVP, is also deeply committed to the HD switchover. It commissioned German broadcast systems integrator BFE to build a 24-camera capacity HD OB van for delivery in April 2008, equipped with Sony monitors and cameras. The van, one of the biggest in Europe, will be ready to broadcast in true HD during the Beijing Olympics in August. Later TVP will upgrade equipment in its other OB van to HD.

    "Everything is being prepared for HD," said TVP's technical director, Waclaw Tylawski. He said the company has already modernized its studios with new editing suites, monitors and other equipment, and expects to start production officially in March.

    Tylawski said rather than carrying programming that is compressed from standard technology and shown in HD, TVP will provide "true" HD. "If people buy TV sets in true HD, we want to provide true HD format," he said. However, he acknowledged budget constraints, as HD costs about 20% more to produce than standard technology.

    Among other major contenders in the race to provide HD programming are Cyfra+, the Polish digital platform owned and operated by France's Canal+, and n, launched in October by Luxembourg-based but homegrown Grupa ITI, whose set-top boxes offer new services such as PVR (personal video recorder) and VoD (video on demand).