May 29, 2009

Sky HD part of any deal for Living, Virgin1 and Bravo?

Some very interesting speculation over on Media Guardian regarding the possible sale of the Virgin Media channels to Sky:

"While one source close to the situation claimed that [the FT story's] figure is not accurate, BSkyB, according to another source with knowledge of the process, was "always going to bid aggressively".

"For Virgin Media the possibility, even at this early stage, of selling its pay-TV assets to BSkyB is distinctly unsavoury.

"For a start Virgin had to endure a 20-month stand-off with the satellite broadcaster, which included high court action, over carriage deals for channels including Sky1, Sky News and Living.

"In addition Virgin Media is one of the "gang of four" – alongside Top Up TV, Setanta and BT – that made a joint complaint to Ofcom that BSkyB had too much control of the pay-TV market. Selling its own channels to BSkyB could undermine its position.

"One senior TV executive argued that Virgin Media may have to look to "sweeten" the deal to make it more palatable.

"'The question for Virgin is do they go for the sell or look to tie it up with some other form of discussion,' said this source.

"Options could include looking to extend the terms of the Virgin Media/Sky TV channel carriage deal to five years, for instance, or looking to tie in the satellite broadcaster's high definition services to a new distribution arrangement."

Sky heads the pack for Living, Virgin1 et al

According to the Financial Times, Sky is going to be the new home of Virgin Media's television brands Living, Bravo, Challenge and Virgin1:
"British Sky Broadcasting has made what appears to be a knock-out bid for a package of seven digital television channels owned by Virgin Media, offering about 60% higher than its nearest challenger. None of the other declared bidders, including Channel 4, Time Warner, RTL and NBC Universal, have bid much more than £100m - well short of BSkyB’s £160m approach. The BSkyB bid creates a dilemma for Virgin Media, which aims to reduce its net debt of £5.9bn but would hesitate to sell to its fiercest rival in the distribution of programming."
Full story here. At least one company see the high definition possibilities for these US-show-centric channels...

Sky Player on XBox 360 - but no HD

Rumoured for a few weeks and now confirmed: Sky content (including movies and sports premium content) is coming to the XBox 360. Unfortunately though there's no sign of Sky HD services being delivered via the game console:

The video content from Sky will be streamed in standard definition, and will require at least a one megabit per second connection.

That's not to say that in future there won't be HD TV to complement the excellent XBox360 Live HD movie library, but for now it's another mechanism for Sky to consolidate its dominance under the TVs of the Great British Public.
More details (and pics of the interface) over on the Register.

May 26, 2009

OFCOM pay TV review

Virgin's Chief Executive Neil Berkett has said that he believes that the OFCOM review on UK Pay TV will possibly force Sky to make its Sports and Movie high definition services available to other services such as cable. He may be right but The Guardian thinks that this saga will run and run and run:

"Next week, the Ofcom board will get its latest fix of the long-running regulatory soap opera that is the pay TV review. After three years of argument, the meeting is likely to decide the parameters of this summer's report on Sky's perceived dominance of the market in premium sports and movies. Sky's rivals hope that the Ofcom decision will change the market for pay TV in this country. This it may well do, but whether it will allow smaller rivals to flourish is far less clear.

"Ofcom is preparing to require Sky to make its premium channels available to other operators on regulated wholesale terms...Nothing that Ofcom proposes is likely to stop appeals from either Sky or the original complainants, and even then the basic issue - Sky's dominance of the pay TV market - will most likely remain unresolved."
Full story here
Do the high definition versions of the channels qualify in their own right as "premium"? Virgin may well be arguing that they do, but if OFCOM demand that they are made available at a '"fair" price, that could prove to be beyond Virgin's pockets or what Mr Berkett is willing to pay. As always, you are recommended to continue your normal breathing practises whilst we wait to find out...

May 25, 2009

Bauer radio stations leave Virgin Media

There was an announcement last week that Bauer's radio stations (including my personal favourite, Q Radio) were leaving Sky, but it appears they've also been taken off Virgin Media this morning too.
Not all have gone (Magic is still around) but most are no longer on cable. So bid farewell to radio stations Q, Heat, Smash Hits, The Hits and Kerrang. They're still on DAB and Freeview, and no word if the TV channels of the same name are hanging around.

May 23, 2009

"Thousands of HD shows and movies on Virgin"

Check out page 53 of the Summer edition of the Virgin Media customer magazine Electric:
Our V+ HD Box not only lets you pause and rewind live TV, you can also watch thousands of OnDemand shows and movies in glorious HD too!
TO GET V+ CALL US NOW ON 0800 052 6992
"Thousands"? Really? Where's that number for the Advertising Standards Authority?

May 22, 2009

BBC HD voted Freesat channel of the year

BBC HD was named channel of the year at last night's inaugural Freesat Awards. This was the voting criteria:

This award is for the best Freesat channel or service, whether TV, radio or interactive with the winner chosen by Freesat viewers. Voters were asked to consider which channel or service had most enhanced their viewing; which had provided them with their best TV or radio moment of the year; which they ‘discovered’ on Freesat; and which they would recommend to their friends.
Hmm. Given that the only other one likely in the running was ITV HD that's hardly the most meaningful accolade.

May 20, 2009

ITV HD copy protection

Us poor Virgin Media customers may still be waiting for the channel, but there's an interesting story on the Home Cinema Choice site about the copy protection currently in place on the ITV HD channel on Freesat:
"all ITV HD material is currently flagged Copy Never, regardless of age or content type. This means that while owners of [the soon-to-be-released] Panasonic’s Blu-ray recorder can timeshift HD programmes to the hard drive, they are prohibited from copying the material to a Blu-ray media in hi-def form. This is in stark contrast to BBC HD which is currently flagged Copy Once, and should [according to the BBC] soon move to Copy Always."
The story goes on to say that Panasonic are in talks with ITV and are hopeful of a change soon, but this kind of blinkered approach to copy protection will make Blu-Ray recorders pretty redundant if it's not addressed pronto. In Japan, where Blu-Ray recorders are already available, the copy protection permits ten HD copies of recording to either local or removable storage - why can't British broadcasters follow suit?

Twitter added to this blog

Not quite sure how much use I'll make of it, but I've set myself up a NialliVM Twitter account which I'll use for breaking Virgin Media news if I have no access to Blogger at the time. Scroll down the home page and it's below the post Archive on the right.

May 16, 2009

Considering BT Vision for HD?

Ever considered BT Vision for your high definition needs? Probably need to think again. I found this interesting review on Trusted Reviews and thought this observation hammered a firm nail into BT Vision's coffin:

Another real aggravation of the BT Vision system is its download speed. A 50-minute Planet Earth show in HD took a mind-numbing three hours and 20 minutes to download. And the HD version of Mamma Mia! took - drum roll, please - an incredible seven hours and 45 minutes. That's a whole hour and 45 minutes longer than the already intimidating 5-6 hour estimated download time given within the film's onscreen synopsis.

Compare this with the way the Xbox 360 downloaded the high definition Wanted in under two hours - using exactly the same BT Broadband line - and it's clear that something isn't quite working as it should within either the V-box or the BT Vision servers.

Obviously the snail-like download speeds make any sort of instant gratification with downloadable movies completely impossible with BT Vision - especially as, unlike the Xbox 360, the V-Box doesn't let you start watching downloaded films before the download has completely finished.

BBC iPlayer HD adds more

After my complaint earlier this week about the paucity of programming in the iPlayer's HD folder, there's been a commendable improvement. As of May 16, this is the line up I have:
  • Birth of British Music
  • Cruickshank on Kew
  • Doctors (5 episodes)
  • Horizon
  • Kerwhizz (5 episodes)
  • Last of the Summer Wine
  • Robin Hood
  • South Pacific
  • Superdoctors
  • Tonight's the Night
  • The Unsellables (5 episodes)
  • Wainwright's Walks
Still no George Gently or Alice Roberts, but still a big improvement over what we saw a week ago.
And they're adding to the TV Choice On Demand HD folder too: see the updated list to the right of this post

May 15, 2009

Branson cut his stake in Virgin Media two years ago

According to this story on MediaGuardian, Sir Richard Branson's no longer Virgin's largest stakeholder. In fact he cut his stake in the company down to 6.3% two years ago but it's only just become public. He's still there in those Scary Spice ads showing at the cinemas of course, but he's only the fourth largest shareholder in the company now - Fidelity are the biggest.

If you've ever wondered if HD is worth it on a 32in TV... Carnivale on TV Choice on Demand. This is a (fabulous) HBO series from 2003 that is shot in those atmospheric muted browns and washed out tones that standard definition digital television really struggles with. As the dust storms blow on the standard definition picture you have so many artefacts and background blocking it looks like the sets are built in Lego, but with the high definition version it's perfect. Even on my humble 32in Toshiba Regza.
I just hope Virgin add all the episodes (including the second season) and keep it available long enough to watch the damn thing...

Virgin tweaks download limits

Full details here from ThinkBroadband. In a nutshell, for XL (20Mb) customers
Package 10am to 3pm download daily trigger level 4pm to 9pm Capped Speed
Old XL 6Gb 3Gb 5Mbps
New XL 7 GB 3.5Gb 5Mbps

50Mb customers remain uncapped. It's only a slight tweak but should give enough headroom for regular iPlayer use and the occasional download

May 14, 2009

DVD still dwarfs Blu-Ray in US

According to a new survey of 11,000 US consumers 63 per cent of the average $25 per month spent on home entertainment was lavished on old fashioned, standard definition DVD. Given that the US public has embraced high definition broadcasting with greater enthusiasm than any other nation on earth, I find this somewhat surprising. Just 7% of that $25 was lavished on high def Blu-Ray discs, a number actually beaten by 9% being spent on Video On Demand services (similar to our own Filmflex). Downloads account for a paltry 3% - not sure if these are legal downloads or not. More details on Home Cinema Choice's site.

BBC iPlayer HD - a major disappointment

Sure, the picture quality is pretty good, but to be honest the much-celebrated arrival of high definition programmes to the Virgin Media version of iPlayer is a serious disappointment.
There has been no sign (yet) of recent prestige BBC series George Gently, South Pacific or The Incredible Human Journey, but we're treated to the likes of Kerwhizz and Doctors - hardly the most compelling HD programming. Yesterday there were just seven programmes listed.
Surely if the service on cable is to add any value it is with the flagship programming rather than CBeebies and a second-rate soap. I can understand rights restrictions prohibiting the inclusion of US imports such as Damages and Heroes, but the omission of the better BBC HD homegrown series seems most bizarre.
Is it the BBC or Virgin to blame? I see both of the documentary series are available in HD online, so I suspect the latter.
And where's the promised ITV HD content in on demand? Promised four months ago but still nothing.

May 12, 2009

New High Definition On Demand Added

It's been pretty quiet on TV Choice On Demand of late, but this week has seen some new programming and some "old favourites" returning. Here's what's showing in my region today (Tuesday 12th):
  • Air Crash Investigation (s5) 1 episode
  • Baghdad ER
  • Big Love (s1) 2 eps
  • Carnivale (s1) 5 eps
  • Dane Cook: Vicious Circle
  • Deep Jungle (s1)
  • Dexter (s3) 3 eps
  • Entourage (s3) 10 eps
  • Fire & Ice: Winter War
  • Human Weapon 5 eps
  • Ice Road Truckers 10 eps
  • Six Feet Under (s4) 4 eps
  • The Sopranos (s2) 11 eps
  • The Sopranos (s3) 9 eps
Unfortunately, the much heralded BBC HD content on iPlayer seems to be reducing by the day. We're now down to just a few hours, and that includes two episodes of the kid's show Kerwhizz and two episodes of the soap Doctors. No sign of George Gently, the finales of Heroes or Damages, or any of the other programming of note from BBC HD last week. And, of course, no HD from C4 or ITV either.

May 10, 2009

A Quantum of Quality

The more you see, the more you want.
Last night we settled down and watched Quantum of Solace in high definition on Filmflex. At £4.99 for a ninety minute film it's not great value, but the picture quality was so outstanding even Mrs Nialli commented upon it. Some of the action sequences are just so fast I think they'd really show the limitations of standard def, so anyone looking at watching the latest Bond on Filmflex is strongly recommended to go HD even at that price.
Of course, the problem is I now want even where did I put that Sky number again??

May 09, 2009

BBC iPlayer expained

Interesting feature over on Crave about how the BBC's excellent iPlayer works (both online and on Virgin Media). Here's the link for those interested: iPlayer Uncovered

New documentaries on Tuesday evenings, BBC HD

When the BBC does a good documentary, it does them better than anyone else. Two new series start on Tuesday (May 12th) that promise to be up there with the very best.
Think South Pacific and you probably think Rogers and Hammerstein, but this promises to be a completely different kettle of fish. And birds. And caterpillars. Click the link for details. It's showing on Sundays on BBC2 but wait until 8pm Tuesdays for your full HD eye-pummeling. Here's the preview.
Alice Roberts, formerly of Coast, is the lady in the middle of that smiling trio above and she's fronting a new series The Incredible Human Journey that's starting at 9pm on Tuesdays. Again, Sundays in standard definition on BBC2, so it will pay to be patient if you want to enjoy the full experience.

May 08, 2009

Virgin testing 7 new channels

Off EPG, Virgin currently have seven channels "testing" - VMTest1 -VMTest7. However, before anyone gets too excited it should be pointed out that they're showing standard definition test broadcasts rather than HD, so chance are they're for regular channels and the numbering is just a coincidence

May 07, 2009

Six more HD channels this summer?

I've added a quick poll (top right) to see how credible you guys think the latest claims from Virgin are regarding new HD channels this summer. Given the press coverage the promise of 5/6 new HD channels got (saw stories in the Mail, Guardian, Telegraph and even The Times) Mr Berkett really has to deliver this time around. Or does he?
Oh, and has anyone else managed to track down those 270 hours of on demand HD programmes yet? I'm coming up with around half that number on current listings.

In the news

Been a busy week in the news for Virgin and high definition services. Here are a few stories worth checking out.
  • There's a report on the forthcoming arrival of high definition channels on Freeview HD in the Telegraph
  • Speculation that Virgin is considering selling access to its fibre network for broadband and telephone services to third parties from The Guardian
  • Accessing an alternative "free" HD service online is tested in this report from Home Cinema Choice

May 06, 2009

Berkett talks HD

A full transcript of Virgin Media's presentation to investors is now available online. To save you plodding through all ten pages of financial results and debt management, here are the bits that refer to HD services:
Neil Berkett (Virgin Chief Executive): We are working to ensure our TV services stay ahead of changes in the consumer behaviour. We expect to increase our HD content steadily to complement our existing linear and on-demand lineup. We are currently negotiating with several broadcasters with a view to launching at least five new HD channels in the third quarter.
Looking further ahead to the next generation of TV, we are working on capitalsing on technological convergence by developing a prototype next generation screen-based interface that combines traditional broadcast content with on-demand programming, web-based entertainment, and interactive features in a simple and user-friendly format. We believe these elements will enable us to differentiate our offering even further and drive further growth over the coming years.
All of our 600,000 DVR boxes are HD ready and as I have said, we intend to grow our HD content and capability this year, commensurate with the pace of market demand for HD. Of course, our key competitive TV advantage is video-on-demand and we already have around 270 hours of HD VOD content, which has recently been bolstered by our launch of the HD version of BBCI player on our platform.
Question from audience: ...on HD and Sky in particular, you had a very good quarter on gross adds. Can you just tell us of any sort of specific retention measures you had to put in place this quarter to counter that, and whether those should ease off as maybe Sky’s level of activity on HD drops off for the next couple of quarters?
Berkett: We see HD as an evolution in the U.K. It’s not a revolution, and we think it’s appropriate that we enter the market now, so we are making appropriate investments in terms of HD. Priority to date has been to ensure that we can absolutely leverage our network advantage and now we’ll start to, if you like, take application back into content and invest in acquiring HD -- appropriate HD channels. Again, I think it’s important that we acquire HD content where HD makes it different and we won’t be investing in the tile.
In respect to specific retention around Sky’s push in terms of HD, we haven’t had to have any material retention in place. I think more and more we are seeing the market segment around various offerings from ourselves, from Sky, or from BT. You know, this is not a zero sum game and so we haven’t had to do anything material in the retention space against HD and therefore to your follow-up question, there will be no lessening of that because it’s not in place in the first place.

May 05, 2009

Virgin Media to redesign EPG and boost HD

From MediaGuardian:

Programme guide redesign and new HD content to boost service already tried by half cable company Virgin Media's users

Virgin Media is planning to change its electronic programming guide so that catch-up TV content is as easy to find as linear television channels. The company has also been testing tying adverts around VoD content, offering another potential money-spinner.

"We are seeing catch-up programming driving things forward," Berkett added. "But HD on demand is also becoming important and we are launching, in July or August, another half a dozen linear HD channels as well. We think it is time to start to join the evolution of HD viewing, economically it is about the right time."

Earlier this year, Sky slashed the cost of its HD service and launched a major advertising push to persuade viewers to start watching HD content. The move helped the satellite broadcaster add 80,000 new customers in the first quarter.

Sky persuaded 243,000 of its customers to take up HD television in the first three months and now has more than 1 million HD households.

Now Virgin Media is looking to get in on the act. Berkett said its new HD channels with "be principally from external parties" rather than developed by its in-house content business.

Virgin Media is able to increase the amount of HD and VoD content available on its cable network, which covers roughly half the UK's households, because of a technical upgrade, which allowed the company to last year launch broadband at 50Mb per second.

Berkett refused to say how many customers have signed up to the super-fast service but the company has already started trials of an even faster broadband offering. Commercial trials of broadband at 200Mb per second began in Ashford, Kent, last week.

Alongside the introduction of much faster speeds than are currently possible on BT's copper network - which is used by rivals including Sky and TalkTalk to provide internet access - the upgrade of Virgin Media's cable network is allowing the company to upgrade its basic broadband service from 2Mb per second to 10Mb. The upgrade of its 2.4 million basic broadband customers starts this month and as a result Virgin Media recently announced it will be increasing the price of its basic service by £2 a month.

Three-quarters of the 47,300 broadband customers that Virgin Media added in the first three months of the year took a service at 10Mb per second or higher. Including a quarter of a million customers who are outside its cable network, Virgin Media currently has just under 4 million broadband users.

From Berkett's presentations

I haven't followed the Virgin Media webcast of the quarterly presentation to investors but above are a few slides from the presentations pertinent to future HD services

May 03, 2009

Bond arrives in HD on Filmflex in May

Here are the Filmflex HD premieres this month:

• Quantum Of Solace 07-May-09
• Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa 21-May-09
• Twilight 21-May-09
• The Women 01-May-09
• Defiance 31-May-09
• Transporter 3 18-May-09
• Zack & Miri Make A Porno 08-May-09
• Waltz With Bashir 30-May-09

Some of last summer's blockbusters will be disappearing (notably Indiana Jones and Iron Man) so if you were planning to watch them, move quickly.

Also here are some of the series appearing in May in TV Choice on Demand (no details as to HD - sorry):

Sci Fi & Fantasy
• Star Trek: Voyager s7
• Star Trek: Enterprise s2
• Babylon 5 s3
• Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles s1
• Andromeda s2
• Primeval s1
• The Closer s3
• ER s14
• Men In Trees s1
• Nip/Tuck s5
• One Tree Hill s5
• Smallville s7
• Without A Trace s6
• Band Of Brothers
• Carnivale s1
• Entourage s3
• Six Feet Under s4
• Tell Me You Love Me s1
• The Sopranos s2
• The Wire s2
• Regenesis s2
• Lost In Austen
• Superhuman
• Sharpe’s Challenge
• See No Evil
• Dr Zhivago
• Persuasion
• Wired
• The Listener s1
• The Border s1
• Supernatural s2
• Close To Home s1
• Studio 60 s1
• The West Wing s2
• Mind Of The Married Man s1
• Big Bang Theory s1
• The Class
• Friends s3
• Joey s2
• Old Christine s1
• Curb Your Enthusiasm s2
• Dane Cook: Vicious Circle
• No Signal s1
• Comic Strip Presents…
Private Enterprise/Consuela
• Fonejacker
• Just For Laughs s2
• Veronica’s Closet s3
• Two And A Half Men s4
• IT Crowd s1
Factual & Entertainment
• Vimy Ridge: Heaven To Hell
• What Happened To Natalee Holloway
• Crime Stories: David Shearing
– The Wells Grey Gunman
• Crime Stories: David Snow
– The House Hermit
• Storm Chasers: Tornado Intercept Tank
• Dr G: Medical Examiner: Under The Knife
• Most Evil: Jealously
• Living With… Boy George
• Deep Jungle s1 HD
• Fat Teens In Love
• Marco’s Great British Feast

May 02, 2009

HBO's Carnivale in HD

Not the greatest show ever made by HBO but still visually sumptuous - the first season of Carnivale is now appearing slowly in TV Choice on Demand. This is the show Ronald D Moore worked on before Battlestar Galactica - something of an oddity and not to all tastes, the title sequence alone is worth watching in high def.

May 01, 2009

BBC iPlayer HD on Virgin

Official press release:

The BBC and Virgin Media (NASDAQ: VMED) today announced the launch of High Definition (HD) content on BBC iPlayer on Virgin Media.

Virgin Media's TV customers are now able to watch some of their favourite BBC programmes, including Robin Hood, Friday Night With Jonathan Ross and Later… With Jools Holland, in HD and on demand [see Notes to Editors].

Virgin Media is the first TV platform to make BBC iPlayer available in full screen picture quality, directly to its TV customers. Demand for the service has been strong with over 100 million views since BBC iPlayer launched on Virgin Media in May 2008 and almost 15 million views in March alone.

Katharine Burns Rivington, Executive Director of Content Acquisition at Virgin Media, said: "As more households become HD Ready, we're keen to ensure that Virgin Media customers benefit from the most advanced digital TV service possible. BBC iPlayer has been a huge success on our TV platform and we're thrilled to be expanding the service with HD content. We're looking forward to increasing our line-up of broadcast HD channels over the next few months and combining the very best of HD and on demand TV."

Rahul Chakkara, BBC Controller, TV Platforms, said: "There's a real appetite for BBC iPlayer on TV screens and the addition of the BBC HD programmes further adds to its appeal. HD lets viewers enjoy their favourite programmes in exceptionally vivid colours and crisp pictures, perfect for the TV screen."

Upcoming highlights from the BBC HD channel, now available for catch-up on BBC iPlayer on Virgin Media, include the two remaining Doctor Who specials, the new series of Dragons' Den and children's show Kerwhizz.

UPDATE: There's a BBC Internet Blog post on the launch on Virgin, too.

BBC HD in catch up

It seems to be a list growing by the hour. No sign of the BBC's US imports (Damages, Mad Men, Heroes) but as the first two of those have their season finales next week that's not surprising. Here's what my V+ has as of 7am May 1st:
  • All The Small Things
  • Doctors (28/3)
  • Gardeners' World
  • Kerwhizz (2 ep)
  • Last of the Summer Wine
  • The Old Guys
  • Reggie Perrin (with its awful laughter track)
  • Robin Hood
  • Tellytales
  • Tonight's the Night
I have a feeling that the arrival of HD in iPlayer is going to be Virgin's sole announcement on HD service improvements this month. I hope I'm wrong.