Q&A: DTG's Richard Lindsay-Davies

Thursday, November 19 2009,

By Andrew Laughlin,

The BBC recently confirmed a rollout timetable for Freeview HD towards the end of the digital switchover in 2012. So DS caught up with Digital TV Group director general Richard Lindsay-Davies to discuss the new service, including the availability of receivers, expected quality of HD channels and how Britain is leading the world by launching the DBV-T2 broadcasting standard.

So now we've got a clear schedule for how things are going to move forward with Freeview HD...
"Yes, we've known about it for a while and its good that its now out in the open. Its important that people know that this stuff is real and that its going to be with 50% of the population when we get to the World Cup."

When are we likely to see Freeview HD products getting to market?
"I don't think that we will really see anything before Christmas barring a few small things on the market. We've got a wide range of products, both integrated TVs and set top boxes, going to our test centre before Christmas. It therefore really depends on how well the manufacturers are able to manage production. I think most of them are really targeting getting into the market in time for the World Cup. There may be a few things pre-Christmas but its likely that the real market push will be in the New Year."

What kind of content can people expect when the service launches?
"The Freeview HD service will very much run in line with how it runs on Freesat. ITV HD will be a simulcast of ITV1, and so on. I think there will be more than enough content to whet the appetite. A lot of the dependencies on HD content are to do with the purchase of rights. I guess the key point as they go into the new rights season next year will be that they manage those rights so that they can put as much HD content on Freeview as possible. What we have found on Freesat is that its about having those big events available in HD, the sporting events, and the big movies or dramas. Some of the peripheral television programmes where the production quality is not as important, HD matters less."

Some existing Freeview boxes currently upscale standard definition broadcast content on the platform, so will the new Freeview HD products do the same?
"We will certainly see a lot of upscaling but the key thing is that you can never recover that detail when it is lost. Upscaling can produce very good pictures, but ultimately unless it is HD right from the start, then you are never going to get that real wow factor such as with HD. Upscaling is wonderful and much better than SD, but its never going to bring the quality of HD. That really gives the detail, such as the blades of grass. HD is really what you need to get that big experience."

So what major challenges do you expect from the HD rollout?
"We've been working pretty hard on this for a while and don't expect any major surprises. HD on Freeview is obviously brand new and massive consumer news, but for those of us in the industry, we have been working on HD for a very long time. We don't anticipate any big surprises. That said, it's an engineering project so it's never launched until its launched. But a lot of the team that are working on the rollout also worked on the Freesat HD implementation. We have learned a lot from that and we think that we are in pretty good shape to launch.
"The same with any platform launch, product availability could be a problem in the early days. But that's just natural. I think manufacturers will look at the BBC's announcement and be confident that the BBC is committed to the service and the content and so will buy into those volumes. There are always new platform risks but I would say that they are lower on this platform than any other platform that I have worked on previously."

Freesat also had HD stock availability problems when it launched, so how will you cope if there is a massive spike in consumer demand?
"It's a chicken and an egg really, because until the service launches, people can't really see why they would want it. For manufacturers, there is obviously still a huge demand from consumers for SD products due to the switchover. So they will be balancing that with the launch of HD. The key point is that we are going on air in December 2009 but we don't really need a mass market to have kicked off for consumers until we get to the World Cup. That will be the time when we see the big step change in availability.
"So we are not worried about it. We are ensuring that we have enough capacity here to test boxes on time and to make sure that they get to market quickly. And I think that all the manufacturers are working very closely with the retailers to ensure that they get a clear strategy. So I think we will be really good shape for the World Cup and amazing shape for Christmas 2010. The launch is being made in December this year not only to satisfy Ofcom's licence requirements but also to ensure that everything is in place for that World Cup landmark, because that's the big one for us."

As the UK is first country in the world to adopt DVB-T2, are other nations closely watching to see how our rollout goes?
"Yeah, I think they are. It's quite often in television that all eyes are on the UK as we often lead developments. What you can never get away from is that spectrum capacity is a natural resource. We can't make any more of it and its fixed capacity that we have. Therefore we have to use it in the most efficient way we possibly can to drive that value for consumers, and also make sure that there is enough available for the industry as well. At some stage there will be a calculation where someone realise that it's worth switching a multiplex over to T2 because there are so many other T2 muxes on the market. We know that we are going to do that first in the UK and we know that other countries are certainly watching us to see how it goes. Anyone doing a new platform launch, though, would be mad not to use T2."

There has recently been some criticism of the BBC for bitrate drops on BBC HD on Freesat. Will it be a challenge for broadcaster to maintain high quality levels on HD channels when Freeview HD launches?
"I think it's a judgement for them to make at the time, but you have to remember that bitrate that is required depends really on the genre of the content. If you have got fast moving, native HD content with lots of movement within the picture, then you need amazing bitrate to deliver that well. If you have something that is bordering on stills, then the bitrate is less important. I think that broadcasters will start using a bigger array of technical tools available to them with T2 and MPEG-4, things like statistical multiplexing, to ensure that they share bandwidth around. But also, they will make some decisions on the importance of the programme and the kind of genre that it is.
"I remember seeing a demo by a particular consumer electronics manufacturer who will remain nameless. They stupidly demonstrated their product showing pictures of trees with leaves blowing in the wind. Every single bit of the screen in high definition was moving and the receiver was struggling to keep up with the data going through it. So it really does depend on the type of content that you are putting through the equipment. Most of the time you won't need such a high bitrate, but now and again, you will. Birds flocking on natural history programmes, for example, requires really, really good bandwidth to do it justice."

So this is a learning experience for the broadcasters, but do you think that consumers will be patient enough to bear with them during the early issues?
"Broadcasters have to mindful if they have bought into this high definition distribution, then they have to set aside adequate bitrate to do it justice. I do think that they have learned a lot. A couple of the broadcasters have got away with murder on the terrestrial channels with very, very low bitrates, and the smaller broadcasters are not using very big bitrates at all. But the BBC HD mux has been designed with appropriate capacity to manage those services very well and there are no plans to deviate from that at this stage. I also think that we should be proud of this service. The closer we get to launch we forget that we keep going through world firsts. This is a world first for T2 and MPEG 4. Its a massive increase in capacity and we should be proud that this country has engineered and is also delivering it."