December 30, 2009

BBC HD over Christmas

What did everyone think? I thought the Doctor Who and Cranford specials looked very good - the former was an improvement over the Waters of Mars episode to my eyes, but that may just be because those aerial shots of London always look good in HD. Cranford looked good too, and so did Outnumbered. I've still to watch Day of the Triffids and Victoria Wood.
I didn't try any of the films showing on BBC HD, but two I caught on 4HD, Dick Tracy and Slither, looked spectacular. TheChristmas lineup on FX was useless, but ESPN HD was as sparkling as ever.
It's a great shame that ITV1HD wasn't on cable in time for Christmas as they've got more HD programming than C4 now. Let's hope we get that before the re-start of the Champions League in February.

December 29, 2009

No cut in Virgin Media BBC HD bit rate

As not everyone reads the Comments posted on this blog, here's some information that will be of interest to those following the BBC HD debate (thanks to Erich and BikeNutt)
Andy Quested, Principal Technologist, BBC Future Media & Technology: "We don't do the encoding for the Virgin platform. The signal from the playout and continuity area goes straight to an inject point somewhere in the bottom of Television Centre and (I assume) off to Virgin's distribution centre. The Virgin distributed HD signal MPEG2 at around 17Mbs and has been for sometime. In fact I believe there has only been one encoder change since the test channel launched. MPEG2 is a mature codec so updates (hard and soft) don't come along very often."

So the BBC HD picture we get hasn't had its bitrate cut like the channel has on either of the satellite platforms, which means the degradation we're seeing is down to other factors. Interesting.
Incidentally, anyone relying on the HD section on BBC iPlayer catch up this Christmas is going to be sorely disappointed: it's missing most of the main Christmas shows (Doctor Who, Cranford, Day of the Triffids, Outnumbered etc). They're there in standard def, but no HD.

December 28, 2009

Which? report gives thumbs up to BBC HD quality

Consumer group Which? has never been highly regarded by the purists for its technology prowess, and it has now stepped into the debate regarding BBC HD picture quality with this report: BBC HD 'in the clear', says Which? Labs.
Not the most illuminating read on the matter.

Mad Men Season 3 begins on BBC HD January 21st

According to page 10 of this edition of Shortlist, the outstanding US show Mad Men returns to UK screens on January 21st 2010. Hurrah!

UPDATE: Delayed by a week or so: now premiering Wednesday January 27th with a double episode.

December 27, 2009

BBC HD Sky vs Virgin

I've heard that the Sky and Freesat BBC HD picture quality is far worst than the so-so BBC HD PQ on Virgin - can anyone verify this? Whilst I find the picture a shadow of its former self, it doesn't sound anywhere near as bad as the descriptions being reported on the BBC HD blogs.

Heroes returns to BBC HD

The fourth series of the (once) eagerly anticipated US series Heroes arrives on BBC HD on Saturday, January 9th at 10.10pm with two episodes. The next day sees the second season of the extremely good Being Human kicking off at 10.30pm.
Also returning in January to BBC HD are Wallander (Jan 3) and Hustle (Jan 4) and showing every week night from Jan 4 is US series Nurse Jackie, starring Edie Falco from The Sopranos.
(Sorry to say I haven't got a date yet for the return of Mad Men.)
The advance schedules are showing BBC HD in the new year running from 4am to 1am each day btw.

December 25, 2009

Free Picturebox but only SD

Apologies for the earlier post (now removed) - I was misinformed
The Picturebox movie selection is free to all VM customers over the Christmas weekend in standard definition, but not HD.
Starting on Christmas day there's more than 20 movies via Virgin Central (channel 118)

Jazz Shorts - nice

If you haven't seen it yet, there's an innovative new series Jazz Shorts on BBC HD this week. Why "innovative"? Read this interesting BBC R&D blog to find out more. Episodes are appearing the iPlayer HD selection if you miss it when broadcast.
Oh, and a Happy Christmas to all regular visitors to this blog

December 24, 2009

BBC HD on Radio 4 'You and Yours'

Danielle Nagler's putting in an appearance on the Radio 4 consumer show You and Yours. From the You and Yours website:
When high definition television launched in 2006 it promised to deliver clear, crisp pictures with vivid colours and up to five times more detail than standard definition. Yet the BBC has recently changed it's specifications of HD transmission and viewers say that their picture has detriorated. The BBC denies this.

If you've experienced problems with the service we'd like to hear from.

You can call us on 0800 044 044 or email us via bbc.co.uk/radio4/youandyours.

December 23, 2009

Cracking start to an HD Christmas

Well, waddayaknow? I've just watched the first episode of Cranford on BBC HD iPlayer and the picture quality was outstanding. Did anyone else see it? Looked fab. The scenes with the ailling Lady Ludlow were super sharp and the photography throughout was really something.
And earlier today I caught up with 4HD's showing of Dick Tracy from earlier in the week. I hadn't seen this movie since it was first released and it looked incredible in HD - really came to life with its wonderfully vivid colour pallette and some cracking cinematography.
Which bodes well for the next few days, especially as I was prepared to be disappointed with BBC HD over the next few days after the last few months of so-so PQ. I'm now looking forward to the second Cranford, the big Doctor Who double bill and the intriguing Day of the Triffids two-parter next week. The films on BBC HD may be mainly family fayre this season, but this is the channel's best line up for Christmas yet.
It's a shame 4HD's schedule is so lacklustre and FX HD seems to have lost the plot completely by lining up hours and hours of TV animation.

December 16, 2009

BBC HD - the final insult

The problems with picture quality on BBC HD have now made it onto the BBC's own news service. How embarrassing is that....

December 14, 2009

Interesting article on Tivo

Here's an interesting piece on Virgin Media's Next Gen TV partner Tivo. Not all rosy in the Tivo garden: Can Tivo Re-invent Itself?

December 12, 2009

Danielle Nagler quits...the debate on BBC HD PQ

She's had enough/run out of excuses/is desperately hoping it all goes away* and has "drawn a line" under her contribution on the matter. Frankly, that's pathetic, and if you read the comments on her latest blog post you'll see that all she's done is wind people up even more. Doesn't she realise that there's no point in promoting the channel in future blogs if people aren't tuning in because of the superior picture elsewhere, even on the standard definition BBC1?
I'm a massive fan of the BBC - the vast majority of viewing in my house is BBC - but Ms Nagler has been responsible for a serious deterioration in picture quality standards on BBC HD. I find it sad that the BBC HD management's response to the unanimous public concensus that the picture quality has dropped has been to stick its collective heads in the sand and deny there's a problem. They do not answer the simplest of questions and hide behind scientific tests whilst denying what their own eyes must surely tell them. Shameful.
All a bit reminiscent of the appalling political mismanagement you see on The Thick of It, which I'll be watching tonight ... on BBC2. It all reminds me of "Tucker's Law" ...

* Delete as applicable

December 11, 2009

BBC HD - RIP

Andy Quested has now posted the last part of his response to those questionning the drop in picture quality on BBC HD; final post (and links to the others) here. The comments speak volumes...
Mr Quested is normally very candid and the time he's taken in writing these (at times very technical) blogs is appreciated, but I'd still like to ask him if, all politics and spin aside, he cannot see that the picture we now have on the channel is inferior to that we enjoyed previous to the changes introduced in the summer. Frankly I don't care about the maths and physics behind the technical evaluations, all I know is what I see with my eyes - it is not as good as it was, and is now closer in sharpness and detail to standard def BBC1 than the HD channels from Nat Geo, C4, FX et al.
Is it bit rate? It has to be a factor and yet the BBC denies this. I don't know what bitrate the On Demand programming is alocated on Virgin but a number of folk have emailed me saying they think it's better to watch programmes on demand now than live or record them. Haven't noticed it myself (BBC HD On Demand being somewhat hit or miss about what it stores still I don't rely on it) but I can say that I currently regard BBC HD as a bit of a waste of my V+ disc at the moment and I'm watching all my BBC viewing on the SD channels.
The debate doesn't appear to be going anywhere - the BBC management are so entrenched they're not going to suddenly admit they were wrong, and the channel's going to the dogs. A real shame. A real setback for high definition TV in the UK.

Freeview HD: Humax box announced for February

Expected to cost around £170, the first Freeview HD box from Humax has been announced - details here

December 10, 2009

BBC HD complaints hit the national press

In today's Independent:BBC criticised over HD picture quality
(thanks Hew)

UPDATE: And now the Mail too, who never miss a chance to lay into the BBC. Comments go off topic really quickly though

Telegraph as well.

December 09, 2009

Films on 4HD this Christmas

Not the most exciting line up, but I guess better than we had last year...
Sun Dec 20: Miracle on 34th Street (1994 version)
Mon Dec 21: Aquamarine; Le Divorce
Tue Dec 22:Rugrats Go Wild; Dick Tracy; Tristan + Isolde
Thu Dec 24: The Nativity Story; 3 Men and a Baby; Slither
Fri Dec 25: Honey I Blew Up The Kids
Sat Dec 26: Aeon Flux
Sun Dec 27: Crocodile Dundee II
Mon Dec 28: Anna and the King
Tue Dec 29: Dreamer; And When Did You Last See Your Father
Fri Dec 31: Romancing The Stone
Sat Jan 1: The Spongebob Squarepants Movie.
In fact, looking through the C4 listings there's precious little actual genuine HD this year unless you fancy hours of Come Dine With Me or Ugly Betty. I think there was a better selection last year - so much for the channel's commitment to high def.

December 07, 2009

E4 HD coming to Sky

...but not Virgin Media yet. It's not the C4 channel I'd get most excited about (personally I'd prefer Film4 or even More4) and if the current 4HD is anything to go by it'll be pretty light on actual HD programming, but it is another step forward. Details here.

December 06, 2009

BBC HD this Christmas

Quite a line up heading our way. Here's some of the detail from Head of BBC HD Danielle Nagler's latest blog post:
We'll be showing not just the final (two) appearances of David Tennant's Doctor Who (on Christmas and New Year's Day), but also specially made outings from The Royle Family, Gavin and Stacey, Catherine Tate, Cranford, and Victoria Wood. The week between Christmas and New Year will also see broadcasts of a remake of Day of the Triffids, The Turn of the Screw, and the Royal Shakespeare Company's Hamlet with David Tennant in the title role.

Christmas Eve will showcase music - we're showing South Pacific (the 1958 film of the musical), The Tsarina's Slippers (ballet from the Royal Opera House), and Carols from Kings. New Year's Eve will see what has become a regular date with Jools Holland's Hootenanny, and we're also using that day to show again the BBC Prom featuring the music of MGM.

We know that many of you value watching films in HD. I can reassure you that a lot of the films that the BBC is showing over Christmas will be on the channel. Please enjoy The Incredibles (on Christmas Day, following on from the Queen's Speech), Herbie: Fully Loaded, Flushed Away, and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (on Boxing Day), and 101 Dalmatians, Miss Potter, Chicken Run, Mary Poppins, the Wallace and Gromit films, at various other points.

My own personal treats to look forrward to over the period include the animation of Julia Donaldson's beautiful children's classic The Gruffalo (on Christmas Day afternoon), and Top Gear's trip to Bolivia showing on 27th December.

December 04, 2009

New feature for On Demand

Not sure exactly when it appeared, but there's now a View From feature on all On Demand programming that means you don't have to 'fast' forward to a specific point in a programme - just type in the time you want to watch from and ... voila! Nice one, VM.
Also, Carnivale season one is back in the HD On Demand listings. I thought the first season was great ... the second season's a bit of a disappointment mind. It looks like the same HBO and History series are in heavy rotation in HD, which is not quite as galling now that we have more HD channels but it would be good to have something new every once in a while.
Meanwhile, the iPlayer's HD selection these days seems to have a lot of kids stuff but for some reason is missing the (marginally) more adult Paradox. Odd.

BBC HD picture quality - Andy Quested blogs

Andy Quested is BBC HD's Principal Technologist and seems to be not just incredibly switched on but also remarkably candid when talking about the challenges facing the channel.
As regular readers of this blog are all too aware, there's been a lot of criticism both here and elsewhere of the picture quality on the channel since the bit-rate and encoder changes in August. Mr Quested has been mostly silent on the matter, but his long-promised blog posts are now to appear daily as he presents his Hitchhiker's Guide to Encoding that will hopefully answer a number of questions. Here's what he has on the menu - links will be added as the posts appear.

Friday: Opening and audio issues
Monday: HD encoder history
Tuesday: The EBU
Wednesday: PSNR and all that
Thursday: New encoder evaluation
Friday: Programme styles and closing thoughts

True Blood season two

Good news for those who like their vampires a little more adult than Twilight offers: the second season of True Blood will be on FX HD in February. (Season one is currently wowing a sizable audience on C4 HD and will end just before Christmas.)
There's less good news for fans of FlashForward though (not in HD on Five of course) - the second half of season one has been delayed until mid-March 2010. I thought this series was a poor man's Lost, until I sumbled over the so-bad-it's-good Paradox on BBC HD last week - suddenly FlashForward doesn't seem quite so bad!
Incidentally, Lost is back on Sky1 early February. Season 8 of 24 returns Jan 24 on Sky1, and the sixth seasons of Grey's Anatomy and Nip/Tuck will be appearing in HD on Living and FX in January too.

December 02, 2009

Freeview HD ("Hardly Different") arrives

Full story and pics from the BBC: BBC Blog
Tech Radar coverage
Digital Spy story

(Watched my recording of Life on BBC HD last night and was pleasantly surprised - very good picture indeed. Are they tweaking things? Or was it just that underwater photography always looks amazing in HD regardless of the bitrate/encoders?)

December 01, 2009

Introducing BBC PHD

According to Digital Spy, Freesat MD Emma Scott thinks that the obvious drop in picture quality on BBC HD is a "geek issue".
"I don't think that regular punters really recognise a recognisable dip. And as Danielle said, it's down to the particular programmes that you are watching and how it is optimised for different types of programmes. On satellite, it's a pretty high picture quality.

"Ultimately, it's about the overall effect of HD, whether it's the surround sound you get with it or how they have shot it. And I think they are right to be experimenting with it to see which things work out. I just don't think it's an issue, I really don't.

"But it's a very subjective decision, a subjective judgement. . . we have no complaints about the picture quality of BBC HD."
So they're now happy with "pretty high picture quality" - maybe they should call it BBC PHD ("Pretty High Definition"). Strewth... it really is the blind leading the blind...

November 27, 2009

4HD films this Sunday

On Sunday check out the excellent animation Robots at 6.25pm and Danny Boyle's dazzling sci-fi Sunshine at 10pm - both showing in high def.

November 26, 2009

Forums buzzing with Tivo news and speculation

The news that VM and Tivo are pairing up for the next gen TV stuff in 2010 has got a lot of people excited. Here are a few of the threads on the topic for those interested:
Cable Forum
Digital Spy
Before your excitement reaches fever pitch though check out this more sobering post on Broadband TV News, which says
Virgin Media currently runs the SeaChange International-owned TV Navigator (the former Liberate) middleware across its technology footprint. It is expected that TV Navigator will continue to be used on SD receivers following the extension of its contract through until at least 2011. Broadband TV News understands that TiVo is likely to be used on a dedicated receiver model, TV Navigator continuing on current and future deployments of the standard and V+ (DVR) receivers.

November 25, 2009

Virgin Media and Tivo team up for Next Gen TV

wowowowow. Virgin Media has announced that it's teaming up with US PVR innovators and market leaders Tivo for its Next Generation (ie IP-based) TV project. From the Tivo Press Release:
Under the mutually exclusive agreement, TiVo will develop a converged television and broadband interactive interface to power Virgin Media's next generation, high definition set top boxes.

TiVo will become the exclusive provider of middleware and user interface software for Virgin Media's next generation set top boxes. Virgin Media will become the exclusive distributor of TiVo services and technology in the United Kingdom.

Neil Berkett, CEO of Virgin Media said, "TiVo's proven track record of innovation, strength of its patented technology and experience in developing best in class user environments, make it an ideal strategic partner for Virgin Media as we move aggressively to bring our next generation TV service to market. The superiority of our fibre optic network combined with TiVo's capabilities, will allow us to offer consumers the most significantly advanced and compelling TV service available in the UK, and we believe will do to the TV market what Virgin Media has done to the high speed broadband market."

The next generation platform will offer a superior television viewing experience which will allow Virgin Media customers to search and discover content through major advances in video-on-demand integration and broadband video delivery creating the ultimate one-stop-shop for in-home entertainment.

Virgin Media currently anticipates its first TiVo co-branded product in 2010.


(Thanks to Tank and Nick for the info)

November 23, 2009

Freeview HD FAQ

My recent post on the imminent arrival of Freeview HD (and less imminent arrival of the hardware it needs) has raised a fair bit of correspondence and highlights much of the confusion about this fledgling "high def" service. For those who want to know more, I can recommend this Freeview HD FAQ on The Register, which puts the basics more succinctly and accurately than I can.

November 20, 2009

Warner introduce a "swap your DVDs for Blu Ray" service

Warner Bros has introduced a new service in the US for those looking to upgrade old WB DVDs to Blu Ray discs. More details at www.dvd2blu.com.
It's not available in the UK yet and it's not actually as generous a deal as it first appears: for each disc it's actually $7.95 (around a fiver) and the postage is another couple of quid unless you send them 25 or more. Still, not a bad initiative.

November 19, 2009

Looking to fill a Wire-shaped hole in your life?

Virgin On Demand is to feature Wire creator David Simon's latest HBO series, Generation Kill, in high definition this autumn. If you missed it on 4HD recently, it's worth investigating although it won't be to everyone's taste. Here's the press release:
From the creator of The Wire, Generation Kill follows a battalion of elite US Marines through ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ – the first 40 days of the Iraq war. It’s based on the book of the same name by Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright, about his own experiences of being embedded with the Marines in Iraq in 2003. The seven-part miniseries portrays the true story of the young Marines’ experience at the tip of the spear of the American invasion, as they contend with equipment shortages, an unclear strategy, moustache protocol and an espresso machine fire.

November 17, 2009

Life on BBC HD

Last night's episode of Life on BBC HD looked pretty good to my eyes. It was about insects, and anyone who watched the series Swarm last year will know that swarms of insects really show the limitations of standard definition with awful blocking and almost unwatchable images. Flicking between BBC1 and HD last night the difference was considerable, especially the sequence showing the migration of the Monarch butterflies. Beautiful.
Reading through the comments on Danielle Nagler's recent blog post it appears that everyone's favourite HD techie Andy Quested is back and investigating the matter. Not before time, as the poll on this blog showed that 83% of respondents felt the picture on BBC HD had deteriorated of late, which is pretty damning in the face of the denials from Auntie.

November 13, 2009

BBC denies HD channel quality drop

The Head of BBC HD has posted again that there are no quality issues with the channel. Here's Danielle Nagler's latest post...and have a look at the immediate reactions in the comments below.

November 12, 2009

Top Gear and Dr Who in HD this weekend

Bit of a red letter day for BBC HD this Sunday - a shame that the drop in picture quality recently (see Poll to the right) makes it something less to shout about. Here are the highlights:
  • BBC HD on Sunday at 7pm: Doctor Who
  • BBC HD on Sunday at 9pm: Top Gear
Also on Sunday, some good movies on 4HD:
(Don't get too excited about C4's showing of Four Weddings and a Funeral on Saturday or the original Planet of the Apes next Tuesday: both are only in standard def.)

No Wild Russia on Nat Geo HD this weekend - that series has finished. All six episodes though are apparently showing back to back on Christmas Day.

November 10, 2009

Freeview HD - coming VERY soon for some

Okay, so it may not be suitably high enough definition for many, but Freeview HD is rolling out with quite an aggressive schedule according to TechRadar:

London has already joined Granada in getting Freeview HD this year, and Glasgow and Edinburgh (Black Hill), Durham and Teeside (Pontop Pike), Birmingham (Lichfield), and south Yorkshire (Emley Moor) were all scheduled for the first half of 2010. West and Central Wales (Blaenplwyf transmitter), Swansea (Kilvey Hall), Cardiff and Newport (Wenvoe) and around the Winter Hill relays will all be up and running by March. In April, Carmarthenshire (Carmel), Exeter and parts of Devon (Stockland Hill), Bristol, Somerset, Dorset Wiltshire and Gloucestershire (Mendip).

May sees Shetland (Bressay) and Orkney (Keelylang Hill) join the Freeview HD party and June brings North Wales (Long Mountain, Moel-y-parc, Presely), Caithness and North Sutherland (Rumster Forest).

OFCOM rejects DRM for BBC HD...for now

The BBC's request that some of its HD programming be "protected" by Digital Rights Management when appearing on the Freeview platform has been rejected by OFCOM. Full story over on The Register.
Given the current picture quality issues I think that's the least of BBC HD's problems at the moment - no-one's going to bother with the HD channel at all whilst stuff looks just as good on the SD channels...

November 09, 2009

Danielle Nagler interview

Now available online, the Points of View interview with the Head of BBC HD Danielle Nagler. Here's the link to the full interview: Points of View. She's towards the bottom of the page and the interview lasts just over seven minutes.
"If it's not crisp and sharp it's not necessarily a bad HD picture"? Really??
I'm not convinced by what she says regarding the current picture quality issue on the channel - my eyes tell me the channel has lost its ability to stun the optic nerves, but she thinks otherwise. Whilst it may not all be down to bitrates there is something wrong, and even if Ms Nagler cannot see it I'm sure others at the Corporation can.
What do you think? A quick poll is to the right.

November 06, 2009

Virgin demonstrating 3D TV

Be still my beating heart...
According to Digital Spy, Virgin are demo-ing 3D TV to the great unwashed today (Friday) at the new Oxford Street store. Details here.

(I know it's not HD and I think in future I'll be keeping this blog just to HD posts from hereon rather than general Virgin news - I just haven't got the time to be honest and other sites cover this in sufficient detail now.)

November 03, 2009

Virgin TV without the phone

It's always been a frustration that Virgin only offers it's TV packages with a telephone line. But at long bloody last they now are offering them as "standalone" too andyou can now get Virgin TV by itself in three flavours:

Virgin TV M+ is £11.50 a month

Virgin TV L is £16 a month

Virgin TV XL is £27.50 a month

November 01, 2009

Football on BBC HD today

The Championship match between Cardiff City and Nottingham Forest may not be the tie of the weekend but it is on BBC HD at 4.45pm Sunday afternoon. Details here. It will be interesting to see how the PQ compares with ESPN HD's coverage of the United Blackburn game last night, which looked pretty much perfect to me (even if the game itself was poor entertainment).

Picturebox HD line up

Looking pretty good HD line up now for a fiver:
  • Barton Fink
  • Bourne Identity
  • Bourne Supremacy
  • Bourne Ultimatum
  • Children of Men
  • The Funhouse
  • Haunted
  • House Calls
  • Jaws
  • Knocked Up
  • Let's Go To Prison
  • The Long Run
  • Lust, Caution
  • Prince of Darkness
  • Rise
  • The Serpent and the Rainbow
  • Seesion 9
  • Sometimes a Great Notion
  • Very Bad Things
In fact I don't recall seeing Ang Lee's Lust, Caution appearing on Sky Premier yet

October 31, 2009

BBC HD PQ - new post on BBC Blog

Head of BBC HD Danielle Nagler has posted again on the BBC blog. She comments on the current issues but not really in much detail:
"Picture quality: I know this is a big concern for some of you, and honestly, I don't need lots of complaints to start to worry about this. I'll defend to the hilt a programme like Criminal Justice, which I think looked fantastic, though others are entirely within their rights to dismiss the "film look" that it went for. But of course I want to make sure that we keep up the standards of the HD offer from the BBC, and I want to make sure, through looking at both technical and audience filters (pardon the pun), that we are in good shape.

"I've launched some further work around this - not because I believe there is a problem, but because I want to make sure there is not - and together with Andy Quested I will of course bring you the outcomes of that work as soon as I can."

Full blog post here.

I can assure Danielle that there definitely is a problem: there is a significant difference in picture quality between her channel and the other HD channels such as National Geographic or FX. There's actually less difference between BBC1 and BBC HD - that cannot be right.

(Incidentally, I recorded Criminal Justice off BBC1 and thought the PQ there was pretty dull and muted - it's not something I would have held up as an obvious example of the problems with BBC HD at the moment as the source material wasn't ever going to be a good showcase. Life, however, should look stunning. And doesn't. I hope when they sort out the encoder/bitrate problem they re-broadcast it.)

October 30, 2009

BBC HD picture quality again

I've just watched two wildlife programmes in HD back to back and I have to say that the quality of BBC HD is still sadly lacking when compared to National Geographic HD. First up I watched an episode of Nat Geo's incredible Wild Russia (Sunday evenings, 8pm) and was blown away by the detail in the footage of the polar bears, reindeer and the stunning floral meadows. Strangely enough, the episode of Life I watched straight after also had reindeer and polar bears. But it looked flat. Dull even. Some of the later shots of the humpback whales were incredible, but not for the picture quality, more for the drama of the "heat run". Having seen the effort the cameramen went to for these pictures, one can only wonder how they felt to see all their excellent work buggered up by the BBC HD channel's transmission shortcomings.
To rub salt into the wound, I then watched a programme on the Claridges hotel on BBC4...and the PQ on that was vibrant and so much more alive...than Life in HD!
So what's going on? How come BBC HD, for so long the quality standard, has dipped so low of late?
Lower bit rates and new codecs at the BBC apparently, brought in for the launch of HD channels on Freeview which is of little comfort for customers of satellite and cable. Head of BBC HD Danielle Nagler and top techie Andy Quested have posted extensively on the BBC's blog on the topic and have offered assurances that it's all okay, but I ain't convinced. Check out this thread from the BBC's own Blog: I'm not the only unhappy customer - there are over 800 comments on this post and they're still appearing daily.
Meanwhile - Sunday, National Geographic HD, 8pm. Wild Russia. You will not be disappointed...

October 29, 2009

Virgin "plan to launch more HD channels"

VM Chief Exec's presentation to investors is now online
Slide 8 is the main TV information, which details the following:

• Significant V+ DVR growth potential from current 21% penetration
• Content investments focused on HD
– Plan to launch more HD channels
• Only 110k analog TV customers remaining
– On-track for analog switch-off in digital areas, freeing up significant spectrum

I gave a listen to Mr Berkett's words that accompanied this presentation but they gave us little clue as to when we could expect additional channels of a more highly defined hue, except it appears to be next year rather than this.

Virgin Media Q3 results

Official press release.

Quarterly Highlights

Financial

  • Consumer on-net1 revenue increased 5.3% to £628m (Q3-08: £596m)
  • Total revenue increased 1.3% to £953m (Q3-08: £941m)
  • OCF2 increased 6.8% to £348m (Q3-08: £326m)
  • Operating income of £50m (Q3-08: £53m)
  • Free Cash Flow3 of £109m (Q3-08: £103m)
  • Net cash provided by operating activities of £278m (Q3-08: £213m)
  • Completion of secondary listing on the London Stock Exchange

Operational

  • On-net ARPU increased 5.3% to £44.24 (Q3-08: £42.00)
  • On-net churn flat year-on-year at 1.5% (Q3-08: 1.5%)
  • Customers are buying more from us with RGUs4 net increase of 199,900 (Q3-08: 185,200) to 12.85m (Q3-08: 12.22 m)
  • On-net triple-play penetration of 59.5% (Q3-08: 54.7%); quad-play penetration now at 10.1%

On-net Broadband

  • Broadband customer net additions of 39,000 (Q3-08: 68,700) to 3.77m (Q3-08: 3.63m)
  • New and existing customers are subscribing to faster broadband, improving tier mix
  • Customers with 10Mb or higher increased 157% year-on-year (including migration) to 2.70m representing 72% of base
  • Customers with 20Mb or higher increased 40% year-on-year to 0.5m representing 13% of base
  • 2Mb to 10Mb upgrade continues – 834,000 customers upgraded so far

Television

  • TV customer net additions of 37,000 (Q3-08: 37,800) to 3.71m (Q3-08: 3.58m)
  • Video-on-demand (VOD) average monthly reach of 55% of digital customers (Q3-08: 49%)
  • Highest ever average VOD views of 66m per month (Q3-08: 45m)

Mobile

  • Record contract mobile customer net additions of 88,000 (Q3-08: 78,300) to 872,600 (Q3-08: 578,600), up 51% year-on-year

Neil Berkett, Chief Executive Officer of Virgin Media, said:

“I am pleased to report that this quarter’s results delivered a strong OCF performance. I believe this demonstrates the success we have had in significantly differentiating and monetizing our compelling consumer proposition. Our triple-play penetration is at record levels and over 10% of our customers now take all four services from us. Our focus remains on attracting high value customers, who buy more from us and stay with us longer. This strategy has led to the second successive quarter of record ARPU and strong consumer revenue growth. I am delighted that these results show we are progressing significantly in this regard.”


Guardian coverage:

"Virgin Media beat analysts' forecasts for the third quarter, adding 8,100 net new cable TV households and boosting revenues by 1.3% to £953m.

"Overall, the company added 17,800 new customers in the third quarter.

"The cable operator reported a year-on-year increase in operating cash flow (OCF) – broadly equivalent to earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) – of 6.8% to £348m for the quarter ended 30 September.

"Average revenue per user rose 5.3% to a record £44.24, almost a pound per user ahead of average analysts' forecasts."

In plainer english, here's the (very positive) Digital Spy interpretation of the numbers.

October 24, 2009

Virgin Media Q3 results this week

Thursday sees Virgin Media announce its latest quarter's results, and, if the last year's announcements are anything to go by, we should see another service enhancement to help distract from so-so performance and details of the debt re-financing. Whereas Sky's stunning performance quarter after quarter speaks for itself (another quarter of a million signed up to HD last quarter, taking the number up to 1.6m), Virgin's Chief Exec Neil Berkett has previously relied on something up his sleeve each quarter to offer some cheer to his customers. I wonder what will we see this time?
Earlier in the summer we had the additional HD channels which, let's be honest, surpassed most's expectations - not just 4HD, but also Nat Geo, MTVN, FX, ESPN and Living, all for nowt if you're on the XL package. This time around I'd hope for more HD (ITV1, Sci Fi, Discovery, History?) but I think chances are it'll be back to something more about 50mb broadband, maybe making that the standard for VIP customers rather than the current 20mb. Or maybe he'll just pacify the financiers with more details of the accounting wizardry and London listing of VM.
Anyone know anything definite?

October 21, 2009

HD channel bitrates

Just found this interesting page on the web, showing the different bitrates for Sky's HD channels. There's quite a range of bitrates there, from the lowest (Luxe TV - 5481kbps) to the highest (Sky Arts 2 - 19161kbps). Somewhat surprised to see quite a few of the movie channels at the lower end of the table: Disney Cine, Sky Action, Sky Comedy, Sky SciFi/Horror and Sky Screen 1 all in the red. Odd.
I'm not sure how they relate to cable bitrates (if at all) but here are the VM channels' rates on satellite (it's a dynamic table and will changed from one day to the next, so see these as indicative):
  • BBC HD 9726
  • C4 HD 9512
  • ESPN HD 16517
  • MTVN HD 14314
  • Nat Geo HD 9160
(There's no Living HD of course, but for some reason FX HD isn't listed either.)
Having watched Life on BBC HD last week and being distinctly underwhelmed I think the dropping of the bitrate does have a noticable affect (despite claims to the contrary from the Beeb team on their blog). What do you guys thinks? Do any Sky HD customers find the quality variable from channel to channel?

October 18, 2009

Bourne in HD

Some weeks you look at the movies on the £5 a month PictureBox subscription service and think "so what?" - in fact, most weeks that's been my reaction. But looking at the line up this week they have all three of the Bourne movies in glorious HD...now that's pretty neat. Details here

October 16, 2009

Vote and let VM know your opinion on possible additional HD channels

As mentionned earlier this week, Virgin Media has been doing some small scale polling of customers asking for their views on adding to the HD line up. As that particular research appears to have finished, I thought I'd ask the same questions regarding possible additional HD channels here, then I can submit the results to VM for their consideration.
I think the key questions on the questionnaire related to willingness to pay £3-£5 for extra bundles of channels, so I've set up four polls on the right relating to the following bundles of channels.
Standard HD
Crime and Investgation HD
Discovery HD
History HD
E4 HD
Luxe HD
Bio HD
National Geo Wild HD
Rush HD
Eurosport HD
Good Food HD
Sundance HD
SciFI HD

Sky HD
Sky 1 HD
Sky Arts 1 HD
Sky Arts 2 HD
Sky Real lives HD

Sky Sports HD
Sky Sports 1 HD
Sky Sports 2 HD
Sky Sports 3 HD

Sky Movies HD
Sky Movies Premiere, Family, etc

October 15, 2009

VM On Demand Tweets

Those on Twitter may want to add Virgin's On Demand updates: @vmondemand.
I still can't my head around Twitter...

October 13, 2009

Virgin ask for feedback on HD [updated]

Virgin are conducting a survey into what people make of the new HD services and what they'd like to see next. There's a link on Cable Forum and another on AV Forums, but neither seems to be right as both link to completed questionnaires. I've asked Virgin for the right way of completing the questionnaire and will post it here when they respond. Still, the survey is interesting as the possible future channels they're asking about include Sky sports, movies and the other Sky regulars. Would you pay £5 for more channels? £10?

Probably the best HD programme on any channel at the moment...

With the BBC dicking around with its compression settings on BBC HD it's good to see that another broadcaster has got it right: the National Geographic HD channel's picture quality is absolutely stunning, and no more so than with the series Wild Russia. I watched it on Sunday evening and my breath wasn't so much taken as stolen. Awesome.
Sundays, 8pm, channel 232.

Virgin to update set top box smart cards UPDATED

Looks like there's an upgrade on its way: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wn3tfH-WYkM
Another attempt to block those households with pirate cable boxes.

UPDATE: Official confirmation on the Virgin site that new smart cards are on their way: http://allyours.virginmedia.com/html/help/smartcard/

October 10, 2009

HD highlights this weekend

Some high def programmes on Virgin worth checking out this weekend:

Saturday

4HD - 7.30pm Film: Oliver Twist (the 2005 Polanski version with Ben Kingsley)
BBC HD - 9.15pm Emma (repeat of last sunday's first bonnet-laden episode)
4HD - 6.30pm Okay, so it's not shot in HD, but Kevin McCloud's Grand Tour is my favourite show of the autumn and it looks fabulous with the wider bandwidth on the HD channel. This is a repeat of the first episode - the final episode is on Sunday at 9pm.

Sunday
4HD - 10pm Film: House of Flying Daggers (visually stunning in SD - be prepared for serious eye burning in high def)
Living HD - lots of episodes of Ghost Whisperer and an episode from the first season of CSI in HD
FX HD - new HBO comedy Eastbound and Down debuts at 10pm with two episodes, and there's a repeat of the first episode of Life on Mars USA at 9pm (which didn't push my buttons)
Nat Geo HD - 8pm Wild Russia is pretty stunning if you haven't spotted that on the schedules yet, and Richard Hammond's Engineering Connections at 9pm is pretty good too.

October 08, 2009

Virgin Media trials new IP TV capability

According to The Register:
Virgin Media will trial delivering its TV and broadband services via copper phone lines as part of plans to expand its footprint beyond the cable network laid in the 1990s.
The firm will run a small trial in Cornwall this winter.
Residents of Higher Pill, in Saltash, and nearby Hatt will be offered free broadband at up to 50Mbit/s downstream via a VDSL2+ line to a roadside cabinet. The cabinets will be linked to Virgin Media backhaul via new fibre laid by Vtesse Networks.
As well as broadband, Virgin Media plans to offer its full range of TV services, including high definition and on demand, over the new infrastructure.

October 06, 2009

Living HD arrives...but what's actually in high def?

As a simulcast, not all Living HD is actually HD (although the upscaled SD picture is an improvement over channel 109). The first real HD programme today is Ghost Whisperer at 7pm, and the other HD today are two further episodes of Ghost Whisperer at 9pm and 10pm, a new episode of Medium at 11pm, The L Word at 2am. Tomorrow has Ghost Whisperer again, CSI Miami, and some season 4 CSI (Las Vegas) from midnight. It's not a great line up, but then much of Living's programming isn't shot in HD (Charmed, for example). It's more than 4HD, but obviously not on a par yet with BBC HD, Nat Geo HD or even FX HD.

October 05, 2009

This week on Virgin Media HD

A few things you may want to check out this week:
  • The rather marvelous run of ESPN HD premiership games continue tonight with a potential cracker: Man City v Villa, kicking off at 8pm
  • Living HD kicks off at 7am tomorrow morning (Tuesday 6th) and its first day's programming includes episodes of Charmed, Ghost Whisperer and CSI
  • BBC HD showcases the second series of Criminal Justice every night this week at 9pm. That'll fill your V+ disc up in no time...
  • 4HD has season one of True Blood from the beginning, kicking off on Wednesday for those who missed it on FX. After a so-so start it really picks up and is worth staying with. Word is that season two (just finished in the US) is outstanding.

October 04, 2009

VM and BT submission to Ofcom

The Sunday Telegraph today has published extracts from the Virgin and BT submission to Ofcom in the run up to a final rerport and recommendation on the pay TV market by the watchdog. Here are some of the highlights:
Virgin and BT say that if Ofcom applied the new pricing rules, consumers could see prices drop for channels such as Sky Sports 1 by as much as 20 per cent.
The argument rests on Ofcom's proposals to demand a wholesale "must-offer" price similar to that used in telecommunications. This would mean Sky dropping its prices to other providers.
"The proposed wholesale must-offer remedy would promote the emergence of a more balanced mix of pay TV platforms and retailers which will benefit consumers in terms of choice, price and innovation," the submission says.
"[It] will enable each platform to compete based on its different strengths, and products to be developed which appeal more closely to the preferences of different groups of customers. Those who do not want or cannot have a satellite dish will not need one. Those that do not wish to commit at the outset to a twelve months subscription but are willing to pay for some TV channels will be more readily able to do so."
The submission adds: "In a more competitive market, it is clear that further innovations would result. One example is the greater availability of HD [high-definition] services on platforms other than satellite and the development of an increased range of on-demand and interactive services by Sky's competiton. For the first time consumers will be able to enjoy genuinely interactive services by being able to participate actively in the TV experience."
Here's what I think will happen next:
1. Sky will make its own submission that will be as strongly worded as ever, complaining that the interfering watchdog is exceding its brief and is proposing to limit an appropriate commercial return on Sky's considerable investment in pay TV content
2. Ofcom will take until the new year to publish its final report, which will find in favour of BT and Virgin, against which Sky will immediately appeal. This delays any action until Cameron's new Tory government can dismiss any ruling as part of the promised Ofcom deconstruction that is apparently a priority for them (I'd personally have thought there were other things they should be sorting out, but what do I know?!)
3. After many months, a compromise is met between Sky and VM/BT when the latter threatens to take things to the EU; Sky drops the price by a nominal amount and makes some of its unique HD services more broadly available. Savings to customers are minimal but on all platforms.
4. Sky Sports, Sky Movies et al finally appear in HD on cable as a subscription offering, but the HD market has already been pretty much monopolised by the satellite service.
5. Longer term, ESPN secures half the Premiership football packages next time they are auctioned and customers find any savings secured on Sky Sports are lost paying for games on ESPN.

October 01, 2009

Sky HD adds another movie channel

Sky Movies Indie HD is added to the satellite HD subscriber's multitude of movie offerings on October 26th. Details here. I'm a big fan of independent film but must admit I have two problems with this Sky channel: it's far too repetitive, and why can't it be called "Independent Cinema" or something a little less like a George Lucas-dedicated channel?!

September 30, 2009

Living HD test broadcast begin

With just a few days left until it launches, Living HD is testing in high def now.
Looks like it will be a cable exclusive at launch, which is somewhat surprising.

Virgin outage in London today

Virgin Media's network was suffering problems this morning with cable subscribers in south London and the South East cut off, and the firm's own website - including webmail - down.

Apparently this was due to power problems were at a former NTL site in Winnersh, Berkshire.

As of lunchtime, Virgin Media said services should now be returning.

September 27, 2009

HD info added to on-screen programme descriptions

If it's broadcast in HD, Virgin's on-screen programme information now seems to show it in the programme details (i on the remote). Not sure how long this info has been there (only saw it today - it may have been introduced a while back) but it may prove useful.
Incidentally, they are also showing the Sky channels' HD tags too, which must be an error in the feed Virgin uses.
(I also noticed the last edition of VM's Electric magazine listed certain Sky Movies as being available in HD, which of course they aren't - unless you're a Sky HD customer.)

September 25, 2009

Virgin confirms Living HD launch for Oct 6

As mentioned on this blog earlier this week, Virgin has now confirmed the launch of Living HD on October 6th. Listings for that day's programming are here, and the full press release is below.

Virgin Media today announced that LIVING will exclusively launch in High Definition (HD) on its TV platform from the 6th October.

LIVING, home to the Next Top Model franchise, cult phenomenon Most Haunted and the break out hit of the year Four Weddings, is one of the UK’s most watched digital TV channels and will now be available to viewers in HD for the first time. LIVING HD will show some of the channel’s high-profile acquisitions to maximum effect, including programmes such as Ghost Whisperer, Private Practice, Boston Legal, CSI Vegas and CSI Miami.

LIVING HD joins Virgin Media Television’s line-up of great entertainment channels, including LIVING, Virgin1, Bravo and Challenge, and will be simulcast on Virgin Media’s TV platform from Tuesday 6th October. LIVING HD will be available to Virgin Media’s XL TV tier subscribers at no extra charge.

Mark Schweitzer, chief commercial officer at Virgin Media, said: “Our customers watch LIVING more than any other digital TV channel, so I’m delighted they will exclusively be the first to watch it in spectacular HD. LIVING has a powerful brand and a breadth of programming that works so well in HD. Our TV service continues to grow as we focus on content that both complements our existing line-up and benefits most from being shown in HD.”

Jonathan Webb, managing director of Virgin Media Television, said: “LIVING’s HD launch is a significant step forward in Virgin Media Television’s cross-platform entertainment strategy. LIVING offers some of the glossiest shows around and its HD launch will showcase our line-up at its most vivid and colourful.”

September 23, 2009

BBC confirms Top Gear in HD from Nov 15th

The next series of Top Gear, starting November 15th, will be shown in high definition on BBC HD. More details on the BBC HD Blog

September 19, 2009

Living HD

Word from a friend at VM I was talking to this week is that Living HD will not be with us until some point in October. Not sure why there's the delay - possibly it will arrive with one or two other additional HD channels (ITV1 HD the most likely addition).
Carriage negotiations with Sky over Living HD continue and, despite the war of words that's flared up again over the Ofcom report, it has also been reported that the relationship between Virgin and Sky "is better than it has ever been". Okay, so the two companies start from a particularly low point but I'm still hopefuly that there's a "Living HD for Sky 1 HD" trade in the offing.

September 17, 2009

Picture Quality on BBC HD

Danielle's posted an update on the recent change of encoders being used on BBC HD and what is being done to address the perceived loss in picture quality: Picture Quality on BBC HD: a response

Freesat numbers rise, but...

Freesat has officially taken off, with the latest press releases boasting over 600,000 customers which places it above BT Vision in the digital TV race despite only recently entering the fray.
But is it going anywhere? The big selling point initially was that it was free HD for those with a dish, but it still only has BBC HD and a few hours a week of ITV HD whereas Sky, Virgin and the imminent Freeview HD have more. More comment on Freesat on the Home Cinema Choice site.

Call for Freeview HD to be encrypted

It hasn't launched yet, but there are calls for EPG encryption on the forthcoming Freeview HD set top boxes when they finally arrive. According to a report in The Guardian:
The BBC wrote to Ofcom asking it to consider whether the digital television HD signal could be encrypted via a so-called "broadcast flag" so that only selected PVRs will be able to record over Freeview.
The actual audio and video won't be scrambled, but the standard EPG data tables that set top boxes use would be encrypted so that only manufacturers that sign up to a new licence will have access to the right code, which is needed for recording.

September 15, 2009

More on Virgin Media's IPTV plans

A word of warning: this gets pretty technical in places, but follow this link Cable Digital News for more details about Virgin's IPTV (aka "Next Generation Television") deal with Cisco and plans for the future. (Thanks to Jasmeet for the link)

September 14, 2009

Two more from 4HD

If you enjoyed the HD broadcast of the final X-Men movie last night on 4HD (not a good film but it did look pretty spectacular in high def), then you may want to set the V+ for two more treats showing in HD on the channel in the next week or so: Jaimie's American Road Trip is in HD on Tuesdays at 9pm, whilst they're repeating the much-talked about Red Riding next weekend, starting on Saturday at 10.15pm. (btw, the three episodes were shot in different formats - 1974 in Super16mm; 1980 in 35mm; 1983 in RED One Digital Cinema Camera, shot in 4K (4096x2048 12bit) so don't expect the PQ to be consistent across the series.)
Disappointingly, the Saturday evening showing of Lord of the Rings part one isn't listed as being in HD :o(

September 07, 2009

BBC HD Autumn schedule

The recent poll on this blog showed that more than a third of you still find yourself watching BBC HD over the newer HD arrivals on your V+, making it the most popular HD channel on cable. Good news: there's a raft of new programmes coming to BBC HD this autumn. We may have to wait until November for the return of Heroes, but in the meantime how about the following? (from Danielle Nagler's latest Blog post)
Returning to the channel at weekends are Strictly Come Dancing (this time, with the results), and Antiques Roadshow. There are channel debuts for Hole in the Wall, Countryfile, Waterloo Road and political satire The Thick of It. There's a range of new comedy, from BBC Two's Home Time, and series two of Beautiful People, to BBC Three's Lunch Monkeys and How Not to Live Your Life, as well as the channel's new horror title Harper's Island.

You'll find the majority of big BBC programmes for the Autumn on the channel, including Life, the Electric Proms, Lost Land of the Volcano, Emma, and The Art of Russia. As well as the Doctor Who specials, we'll be showing the animation series Dreamland, and the next Sarah Jane Adventures, and younger viewers may also appreciate the arrival of Shaun the Sheep and new Justin Fletcher (aka Mr Tumble) series, Gigglebiz, which is a bit like Little Britain for under 6s.

Stephen Fry's 'Last Chance To See"

Two new nature series kick off on BBC HD this week. Stephen Fry's Last Chance To See is on BBC1 on Sunday evening but you have to wait until Tuesday at 8pm to see it on BBC HD. It's followed at 9pm by a simulcast of Lost Land Of The Volcano from the same team who did the Lost Land Of The Jaguar last year.

September 06, 2009

Picturebox HD with surround sound

Thanks to Brian who emailed me to let me know that some PictureBox HD movies are now with surround sound (Hot Fuzz is, not sure about the others). I don't know if it's Dolby Digital 5.1 or not though - see this discussion over on Cable Forum for more debate

September 05, 2009

3D TV failing to set pulses racing

The film studios, TV manufacturers and Sky may all be doing their best to whip some enthusiasm for 3D, but it appears that few of you are excited by the prospect at this stage in its evolution.
A poll conducted on this blog pulled 420 votes, but only 12% of respondents thought that 3D TV was "very important" whilst over a third said they felt it was a fad and not important at all, and another third felt it a niche service at best. 16% considered it moderately important but not essential.
I have to say I remain sceptical myself - as a glasses-wearer I've found 3D in its various guises to be an uncomfortable experience at best, but even the idea of the technology in new sets not requiring glasses doesn't set my pulse racing either. Some in Hollywood may believe it's the future but frankly I can't see it happening with movies apart from the summer comic book blockbusters and kids films.
Give me quality HD over a 3D headache any day...

September 04, 2009

Virgin On Demand Listings available online

It has taken years, but finally Virgin is publishing its On Demand programming on the Virgin Media website. Hurrah!
Here's the URL for the HD programmes available online: http://www.virginmedia.com/tvradio/ondemand/new-tvlist.php?nocatchup=1&hdonly=1
If you click on a programme title it explains where you can find it in the maze of the EPG. Unfortunately, it doesn't tell you how long a programme is going to be available or what may be coming next, but it's a damn sight more efficient than scrolling through menus on the EPG trying to find the stuff. Appears to be fully searchable and sortable, too.
(Doesn't appear to include all of the Filmflex HD films though - just one or two.)

An enigmatic island of mystery and death

No, not that Lost island, this is Harper's Island, a 13-part US drama arriving on BBC HD Sunday evening with a double episode kicking off at 9pm. Although cancelled in the US, the story is complete and may be worth checking out whilst we wait for the genuine article to return in January for its final run on Sky1.

September 01, 2009

50mb broadband for VIP customers

Don't always report on the broadband service (other sites are a better source for broadband info) but thought I'd mention that for VIP customers the 50mb XXL broadband is now just £8 extra per month (plus a £50 one-off install cost). New 802.11n modem, too.

C4 HD picking up

August is always a poor month on Channel 4 (unless you like Big Brother) and it's been a particularly dry time for those of us sampling C4HD for the first time. Mercifully, September sees things pick up on the channel especially with films and here are some of the HD programmes coming our way for the week from Saturday:

Saturday

19.05 and 20.05 ER
21.00 Film: World Trade Center
23.30 Film: Hustle & Flow
01.40 Film: Mean Creek

Sunday

09.25 Hollyoaks Omnibus (and every week day at 18.30)
13.00 Teen Choice Awards
14.50 Ugly Betty
20.00 Come Dine With Me
22.40 Film: Lucky Number Slevin

Monday

23.10 Film: Straightheads

Tuesday

23.35 Coming Up
00.05 The Kevin Bishop Show

Wednesday

13.20 Film: Batman (1966)

Thursday

13.25 Film: Fantastic Voyage
01.15 Film: Against the Ropes

Friday

01.10 Film: Knights of the South Bronx

It's still not brilliant (but you can't blame Virgin for that) and it's disapponting that so many of C4's new homegrown programmes are still only in SD (Jaime Oliver, Dispatches, Location Location etc) but the films are most welcome.

August 31, 2009

Which of the new HD channels do you watch?

It's been a month (give or take a few days) since the additional HD channels launched on Virgin Media and I've found myself watching a lot more HD of late, much of it on channels I'd rarely watched previously. FX HD may repeat programming ad nauseum but in True Blood it has one of the best US imports in a long time, whilst Nat Geo HD strikes me as a little more watchable than Discovery but still short of the better BBC documentary series. MTVN HD seems limited and upscaled to me, whilst Channel 4 HD should spark into life a little more once we start the new season schedules in September.
ESPN HD has been brilliant for the footie but I still find it's BBC HD that is filling (rapidly!) my V+ each week - the recent series of River and Coast are backed up on my disc and a few episodes of Desperate Romantics have been recorded in SD just to squeeze on. If you're recording just HD it's a meagre 20 hours of recording you can store, and unfortunately the much-lauded HD on demand with iPlayer just isn't up to scratch yet, predominantly filled with kids' series and soaps (why??!).
The V+ storage is a problem Virgin will get complaints about if they can't engineer a Samsung roll out and a switch to MPeg4 soon.
Another poll then: now that we have more than one, which HD channel do you watch most?

August 28, 2009

Sky and Ofcom

There was an interesting article in The Guardian this week about BT Vision. BT's pay TV service (basically Freeview plus IP TV) has struggled to lure paying customers away from Sky and Virgin and currently serves a TV customer base of 433k - Sky has more than 9m and Virgin 3.5m. (Any HD offering on the service is constrained by BT's copper-based ADSL broadband btw.) Anyway, what interested me in the article was a comment made by the Chief Exec of BT Retail regarding the regulators and the double-standards of some of Sky's statements regarding the Ofcom report earlier in the summer:
Ofcom wants to impose a complicated pricing formula which it claims will allow Sky to make a decent margin from selling on its sport and movie channels, even after the cost of acquiring the rights has been taken into account.

"It would not make Sky sell at a loss," Patterson [Chief Exec of BT Retail] says. It is ironic, he adds, that Sky has built a broadband business with more than 2 million customers (BT has close to 5 million) by piggybacking on BT's own network, following a deal imposed by regulators, but is unwilling to accede to Ofcom's writ by making its own content available to BT and others.

I hadn't thought of it like that. Sky has talked up the investment made by the company in securing its premium TV content monopoly, but has conveniently ignored the similar situation in the broadband market with BT having made a huge investment and then having to bow to regulatory power to open it up to the competition. Which Sky has been one of the main beneficiaries of.

Funny that...

August 27, 2009

3D TV - who cares?

Sky has announced that in 2010 it will launch a 3D channel. This week's episode of Chuck on Virgin1 was in 3D. Every summer release at the cinema seems to be boast a premium-priced 3D version. Does anyone care? Is this destined to die like previous 3D fads or is this the real deal? I've put up a poll so vote now or feel free to comment on this post.

August 24, 2009

ESPN - better games than Sky so far!

They may not be the most attractive games on paper, but so far ESPN has had all of the better games I've watched on TV this season, and all in HD, too. First weekend the Everton v Arsenal cracker, then Wigan v United, then arguably the best of the weekend ties with West Ham v Spurs, and now tonight an absolutely cracker of Liverpool v Villa. Not a duff one yet. Chelsea v Burnley's the next up on Saturday at noon then Spurs v Man U on September 12th. Fabulous. And a fabulous picture, too :-)

August 23, 2009

Sky Movies channels picture quality improved?

Long time visitors to this blog will know that I have a theory that Sky deliberately reduced the bit-rate on its SD movie channels (both on cable and satellite) to artificially exagerate the difference between standard definiton and the new high definition versions. I'm not saying HD isn't superior, but it struck me as probably more than coincidence that the premium movie channels on cable in SD seemed to suffer a significant quality drop around the time that the majority got HD equivalents on satellite. It wasn't just me that commented, and sites that measure the bit-rates for channels broadcast on satellite appeared to back up what I was seeing.
(Of course, it may not have been Sky being creative with bit-rates - it could just have easily been a technical fault at Virgin - but I do like a good conspiracy theory.)
Of late though, things appear to my eyes have improved on the SD movie channels. Watching Hellboy II and Indiana Jones IV recently I thought the picture was good again, probably the best it has been for some time. Has anyone else noticed this? Comparison with Film4 still suggest the Channel 4 service is superior, but it is less notable now.
It could be to do with the Luxemburg thing Virgin did a few months back (which I thought was just a tax wheeze), it could be improved bit-rates, it could be my eyes getting older, who knows? Of course it's no substitute for us getting the HD versions of the movie channels, but in the meantime any improvement to the (expensive) movie service is most welcome. Even if it is all in my imagination.

August 20, 2009

Calibrating an LCD TV

If you have a flat panel TV and haven't calibrated it yet, chances are you may be short-changing yourself on picture quality. My LCD is over two years' old and I still tweak the settings every now and again, largely in an unscientific "looks a bit too red" kinda way.
Anyway, if you want to do it more scientifically here's a handy guide on The Register to follow to maximise your televisual experience.

Living HD testing

There are previews showing on Living HD (channel 110), albeit just in standard definition to my eyes.

August 19, 2009

BBC HD problems?

I hadn't noticed myself, but apparently there are quality issues with BBC HD that have led to them issuing the following statement:

"The BBC has deployed a new set of HD encoders. The current bitrates were picked after much side-by-side comparison of the old and new encoders using a wide range of programme material. While it is impossible to achieve parity in all formats the new encoders were judged to be giving equal or better quality in most cases."

"However, there is no test like putting these to air, and when we did, a reproducible problem was identified on certain types of material. We have shared this information with the coder manufacturer so they can investigate further. "

"The particular problem does not go away with higher bitrates, so whilst an investigation and fix are awaited some changes have already been made to the encoders to try and mitigate the effects. In addition, the new encoders also fixed other problems, unrelated to picture quality, which the BBC received complaints about."

There's more on this on the What HiFi site.

August 18, 2009

"Sky+ HD - it's what your HD ready TV was made for"

Well we knew that, but now Sky is reminding the great British public in a big way.
Sky spends more than double what Virgin Media does on advertising its services - and is in fact one of the biggest advertisers in the UK - and it has dug deep into its pockets again with a massive promotion of Sky HD in today's press, two page colour ads in every paper, belittling Virgin's six HD channels compared to (up to) 34 on Sky HD.
It's not a fair comparison - half of the channels Sky has in HD are not made available to VM as they are Sky-owned, and the VM service is free to XL TV customers whereas on Sky you pay extra - and as with all Sky and Virgin ads the devil is in the detail, but it does show that Sky is going to take Virgin's move into HD seriously. Possibly more seriously than Virgin themselves.

August 17, 2009

Who still watches "live" TV?

A recent OFCOM report on TV usage suggests that more and more of us watch our TV timeshifted. Here are the headlines:
  • At the end of March, over a quarter of UK homes (27%) had a PVR ("Personal Video Recorder", such as the V+ or Sky+), representing an increase of 29% since September, 2008.
  • Around 9 million PVR's have been sold in the UK, the majority (over 5 million) of which are Sky+ boxes.
  • Around a fifth (19%) of viewing in Sky+ homes is timeshifted, while in homes equipped with Virgin Media's V+ PVR service 12% of viewing is timeshifted; in Freeview PVR homes, meanwhile, around 9% of viewing is timeshifted.
The full text of the report's TV section is available online at: http://www.ofcom.org.uk/research/cm/cmr09/CMRMain_2.pdf

So if you have a V+, do you still watch live TV (excepting sport or news)? I hardly watch anything when it's actually broadcast these days, the only exception really being what I'd call "event" TV, stuff I choose to watch at the earliest opportunity (Lost being one of the few examples of this). In fact, I think I actually watch less TV than I did before the V+, but I'm more selective in what I watch.
Which presents a problem with the new HD channels still being the less efficient compression of MPeg2. My V+ hard disc just ain't big enough to record several episodes of an HD series without the disc groaning under the size of a few hours of HD. What's more, the HD section of iPlayer seems to be extremely hit and miss, which means my (manual) series stacking of Desperate Romantics and Being Human has been recorded from SD rather than high def as I know I won't get around to watching them for a while. Anyone else struggling with this? I find that I only record HD programmes if I plan to watch them the same week now, which makes the whole thing somwhat frustrating.

Films in HD this week

A few films showing in HD on Virgin's HD channels this week:

Life & Lyrics
Thursday 20 August
11:00pm - 12:50am
BBC HD

Grow Your Own
Friday 21 August
11:00pm - 12:40am
BBC HD

The School of Rock
Sunday 23 August
8:00pm - 10:10pm
Channel 4

And for those with the £5 a month Picturebox service, there's a pretty motley collection of SD and HD movies that wouldn't look out of place in the bargain bins you see in garages: check out the 28 on offer at the Picturebox site

August 16, 2009

Will ESPN grab La Liga coverage? UPDATED

With the start of the Spanish football season still a few weeks away there's an interesting bidding war brewing between Sky and ESPN for the all-star outstanding non-Premiership football rights to beat them all. With Real Madrid and Barcelona being pretty much essential viewing to all but the most casual of footie fans, the current lack of a deal for broadcasting La Liga in the UK is perplexing and likely to go to the wire.
Will ESPN grab this and become the place for European football coverage, or will Sky regain what for my mind is the best football in the world? So far the two have been pretty amicable since the demise of Setanta, but word is that Sky are not happy with the deal ESPN has struck with Virgin and this could turn nasty. For the VM viewer, the preference I guess would be for ESPN, especially if the new season is broadcast in HD for the first time here. In fact, Sky has only shown La Liga in 4:3 ratio to date, so pretty much anything will be an improvement over that and the dodgy pictures we had last season some Sunday evenings.
(More details over on Digital Spy, btw.)
UPDATED: August 25th. Sky Sports has secured an exclusive three-year TV rights deal to broadcast live matches from La Liga in Spain.
Under the arrangement, Sky Sports will show at least two live matches every weekend, but no word as to whether it will be in widescreen or not.

August 15, 2009

ESPN HD

Just tuned in to ESPN HD for the Everton v Arsenal game and that's one heckuva decent view of the game - compared with the woeful Setanta picture quality of the last few seasons this is fab fab fab. Flicking between ESPN and ESPN HD there's no way I'm going to endure the SD version this season - even if it does appear to be a few seconds ahead of the HD broadcast

Brad in HD

We may not have a film channel in HD, but at least the arrival of 4HD should give us a few options aside from the pay services from Filmflex and Picturebox. Saturday at 10.10pm the Brad Pitt starring Babel debuts on C4 HD and Sunday at 4.30pm has WarGames and Ashton Kutcher in Just Married at 10.50pm. Sky HD customers will scoff, but at least we're getting a few movies in HD now - keep an eye on the FX HD listings too, as they often sneak a movie or two in, as will Living HD.

August 14, 2009

FX HD - US remake of Life on Mars arrives in October

Looking a little way ahead, FX HD has lined up the US remake of Life on Mars as its replacement for True Blood on Friday evenings this autumn.
Critically well received and with Harvey Keitel as Gene Hunt, this looks interesting even if it is likely to pale if compared with the BBC's original.
The show was axed after a single season in the US but they extended the initial number of episodes from 14 to 17 to wrap up the loose ends and create a twist apparently even more audacious than the end of the UK version.
Life on Mars will debut on FX HD at 10pm on Fridays from 9 October, once the channel has finished the first run of HBO’s True Blood.

August 13, 2009

Living HD on channel 110

Okay, it's still "coming soon", but they've moved Living to 109 and put a placeholder for Living HD on channel 110. I understand it will launch in around a fortnight.
This will bring Virgin's HD channels to seven (BBC, C4, Nat Geo, FX, MTVN, ESPN plus Living), with word that British Eurosport, History and ITV1 may join the line up before the year is out. Ten HD channels at no extra cost for XL customers is a pretty good deal if you ask me.
What will be interesting will be how much Sky is willing to offer for Living HD - they don't want to have it missing from their lineup (Living is one of the most popular pay TV channels) - but Virgin may demand access to Sky1 HD in return. Now that would be something...

August 12, 2009

In the news: ITV1 HD and Sky Ad ban

ITV is testing an HD/upscaled simulcast for its flagship ITV1 channel: full story on MediaGuardian
Also, Sky has had an HD ad banned for not pointing out that "free install" requires a multi-room subscription: full story on MediaGuardian.

August 07, 2009

Living with HD in the USA

Okay, so I've missed all the excitement of Virgin finally giving us more HD at home, but I've been in the good ol' US of A this last fortnight and have been watching HD TV most evenings when not enjoying the California sunshine, so it's not been a complete HD wash out for your intrepid blogger.
The thing that's most notable in the US hotels I've experienced is that HD is still just a handful of channels - home customers obviously get much more and I've seen cable companies boasting over 100. But for hotel customers it's still primarily stretched 4:3 standard def, and the picture quality of those SD channels is absolutely dire, making HD pretty much the only viewing you can enjoy.
Oh, and the EPG was by far the worst I've seen since the early days of OnDigital - and slooooow, too.
Both hotels we stayed in had 42in LG LCD panels served by NXT hotel cable services. The HD channels we had were ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, PBS, HBO, TNT, TBS and ESPN. All were great pictures in HD but you do get used to it after a while, and when Mrs Nialli tuned into the SD versions a few times even she complained that there was something not quite right with the picture.
In the US they haven't sorted out the ads presenting in 16:9 and the majority appear in 4:3 ratio, and still many of the programmes on ESPN and other channels are showing in the old squarer picture ratio too. It still feels very much like a mixed bag, very similar to how I found things 15 months ago when visiting Miami - I'd expected things to have moved on but they haven't. It's not as though I was staying in average hotels - the Hard Rock Hotel in San Diego prides itself on its high tech rooms. My own lounge is higher tech...
A few more things I'll comment on: anyone keenly awaiting the arrival of HD news services needs to be aware that although the studio filming looks good in HD the majority of news pictures are still in standard def and it's quite jarring when switching from one source to another. HD graphics laid over SD film look quite odd. Hopefully Sky News HD (and BBC News HD in 2012) will not suffer quite as badly when they launch here.
Managed to grab a couple of HD movies on demand. Star Trek looked excellent (and will be on FilmFlex in HD soon) but State of Play looked very ordinary in HD. We saw Watchmen in SD and I thought the picture was as good and comparable with DVD quality - impressive but not breathtaking. (Incidentally, I saw the same movie playing on Blu-Ray in a store and even Mrs Nialli said the picture quality was "unbelievable", which makes my Blu-Ray player request for Christmas look like a sure thing!)
Overall, a wee bit disappointed that HD is still not making more of an appearance in top hotels in the US. I'm off to NY at the end of September on business and maybe I'll see more in the big Apple.
Anyone else experienced HD overseas?

August 03, 2009

VIPs get free V+ box?

Not sure how this applies to existing VIP customers, but Virgin is advertising the Samsung V+ as "free" - http://allyours.virginmedia.com/html/tv/vplus-hd-box.html . Whether this is for new customers or existing, whether it's definitely a Samsung you'll get or an old SA, no idea, but it may be worth a call.

Listings for new HD channels

A source for listings for the new HD channels I've found appears to be uk-tv-guide.com, but you have to click on the programmes to confirm if they're actually in HD or not and it does show some programmes as being in HD when they're not (eg The Wire on FX HD) so I'm not hugely impressed. Here are the pages for today:

Channel 4 HD
FX HD
MTVN HD
National Georgraphic HD

No ESPN HD yet but that's not broadcasting until 8pm tonight.

Does anyone know of a more accurate set of listings?

July 31, 2009

Meanwhile Sky HD customers double

Sky's latest results are, as is becoming customary, hugely impressive. And again the main driver appears to be HD. Overall, Sky now has 9.442m customers, with annual net customer additions of 462,000 - the highest number in five years. Sky HD added 534,000 customers net over the year, taking it to a subscriber base of 1.313m. Details of the Sky results on The Guardian's site.
Virgin Media's latest quarter results are published next Thurday (August 6th).

Channel 4 HD arrives

Arrived this morning - again, apologies for the delivery of what for many is old news!
Here's our new HD channel line up:
  • BBC HD (108)
  • Channel 4 HD (146)
  • FX HD (158)
  • MTVN HD (310)
  • National Geographic HD (232)
If this is what happens when I go away, please feel free to contribute to the new Nialli HD-while-he's-away Holiday Fund!