The BBC has announced that it will provide high-definition television coverage of the World Cup and Wimbledon as part of a trial service starting in the summer, coinciding with the launch of HDTV by satellite broadcaster BSkyB.
The BBC HD service will start on 15 May and the first live programme will be the opening World Cup match between Germany and Costa Rica on 9 June, with coverage provided by the German host broadcasters.
The World Cup will be the first major sporting event to be broadcast in HD in the UK. Sporting coverage will continue in high definition with matches from the Centre Court and Court One at Wimbledon.
Viewers will need an ‘HD Ready’ TV and compatible set-top box to receive the service. The World Cup is expected to provide a major incentive for consumers in the UK to upgrade their sets.
Satellite broadcaster BSkyB will launch its high-definition service in advance of the World Cup. The consolidated cable operator in the UK is also planning to provide a high-definition television service.
Freeview viewers are likely to miss out. A technical trial on digital terrestrial television will apparently be confined to only a few hundred households in London. The BBC says there is limited terrestrial capacity for a high-definition service until digital switchover between 2008 and 2012, although it is lobbying the regulator Ofcom to make capacity available for such purposes.
The BBC trial will continue for about twelve months. Running for between one or two hours a day, it will feature selected programmes, including the natural history series Planet Earth, and the BBC Proms concert season in high definition.
A technical test service has already been in operation on satellite for around six months and it has long been anticipated that the BBC would offer the World Cup in high definition. Last November the corporation said it planned to offer a high-definition television trial in 2006.
The only real surprise is that it has taken this long for the BBC to make a commitment to HDTV, although it has previously said that the majority of its production will be in high definition by the end of the decade.
The formal announcement of the high-definition trial service follows finalisation of the technical and partnership arrangements. Any ongoing service will be subject to approval by the new BBC Trust.
The BBC has said it can help provide the benefits of high-definition television to everyone, free to air, in the same way that it backed colour, stereo, widescreen and online.
According to recent research, as many as 700,000 British homes have an HDTV set, before high-definition television has even been launched in the country. Before Christmas, one in three sets sold was HD Ready. Previous predictions of two million sets installed by the end of 2006 and 10 million by the end of the decade could now look a little conservative, according to market researchers GFK.