June 29, 2009

Universal movies coming to Virgin...in HD

Virgin has announced the launch of PictureBox, the leading movies-on-demand TV subscription service, on its TV platform. Here are the details from the press release:

From July, the PictureBox service will be available for £5 per month. Subscribers will be able to view films whenever they like from a selection of 28 films at any given time, with seven new titles being added to the line-up each Friday. Most of the PictureBox films will be available in HD and many will not yet have been seen on free-to-air television in the UK.

Highlights of films that will be featured on PictureBox in the coming months include such hits as Hot Fuzz, The Bourne Ultimatum, Children of Men and The Holiday, as well as classic blockbusters such as Scarface, Total Recall, The Nutty Professor and E.T – The Extra Terrestrial. PictureBox is wholly owned by Universal Pictures Ltd.

Not the latest movies by any stretch of the imagination, but a cheaper option that Filmflex for those who don't have Sky Movies. I've found a link to a site that has the service's current offering on BT Vision: Picturebox

June 28, 2009

OFCOM's report on Pay TV

I've still not read the whole report but I have given what I've read some consideration over the weekend. Essentially, I do believe in fairness and honour in business but also understand that everyone needs to make an honest buck. So I do sympathise to some degree with Sky - as they've protested over the last few days, they make the investment, they should be able to reap the rewards.
To a point.
But over the last ten years the regulators have turned a blind eye to the flagrant abuse of commercial power that Sky's investment has given it. Sky prices its premium channels out of the reach of the competition or, as in VM's case, where they can only have those channels at a cost that makes them commercial suicide (VM lose money with every premium sub they sell). What's more its emerged that Sky even tie up some rights (eg subscription VoD movies) with the deals they do and then do not use them as the Sky platform can't deliver it properly. So much for consumer choice.
OFCOM is now showing some balls. Good for them. Inevitably the report's findings will either be watered down, spun out in the courts or uneven compromises will be reached because Sky is simply too powerful and doesn't like an even playing field. But hopefully all parties can get something out of this - VM will get a better commercial deal and access to the HD it so desperately needs. BT will get the channels to make BT Vision a serious competitor. Tiscali and the other fledgling IPTV operations may finally get access to the content to deliver the promised next generation of TV. And even Sky will get more revenues by selling the premium content to more platforms, albeit at a reduced rate.
Sky will whine and moan and thrash around the playground like any bully who's been found out, but the abuse of the monopoly it has built has been so flagrant and the attitude so arrogant that OFCOM's recommendations should be warmly welcomed by all but the most passionate Sky worshipper. I don't hate Sky - I think they provide an exceptional service to their customers and have helped make UK TV some of the best in the world - but some areas of their business practises needed addressing.
The only real question is why did it take OFCOM so long.
Believe in better...maybe we all can now.

Finished watching Carnivale?

If you have a hole in your life now that you've devoured all twelve episodes of HBO's Carnivale season one on VM HD on demand, you could do worse than venture over to Sky 3 at midnight on Thursday. Okay, so it's only in standard definition (even for Sky HD customers) but they are showing HBO's incredible Deadwood from the first episode, and that just has to be worth tuning in for...

June 27, 2009

The OFCOM report - comments welcome

Sorry, but I'm just not going to have the time to plough through 340+ pages of the OFCOM report this weekend. I've read the first thirty and sections specifically mentioning HD (see earlier post) and find little to argue with - I think it's a fair and revealing document. Did you know Virgin makes a loss on the sale of movies and sports to customers? Did you know that the reason Filmflex can't offer subscription services is because they're tied into the deals done with Sky (who can't deliver VoD)? Good to see exclusive Sky red button content is also heavily criticised.
Anyway - I welcome any comments on the report from those with an interest. Please feel free to express your views. Or maybe you'll all be like me down at the seaside today ;o)

June 25, 2009

August 1st for six HD channels on Virgin?

According to a forum post on Digital Spy, Virgin will launch six HD channels on August 1st:
Just received a reply from Mr Berkett's office regarding HD Channels and ESPN. Below is the reply (Please note no mention of coming soon)

We are in negotiation with ESPN
We will launch half a dozen channels on August 1
Nothing official from Virgin and not the first time we've seen a possible date. I will see if anyone at VM can substantiate this. Stay tuned...

UPDATE: Just got this back from VM support:
At the moment there have been no announcements, as soon as anything new does come out this will be communicated to the customers.

Kind Regards
Laura Jay
Virgin Media Technical Support

Carnivale season one complete

Hang out the bunting and pop open the Champers! The twelfth and final episode of season one of the outstanding Carnivale has finally appeared in HD TV Choice On Demand. According to the info screen, it'll be around for another couple of weeks, as will the final episode of another excellent HBO show, season one of Big Love. Great to have them complete - I highly recommend both.
Disappearing today was the sexually explicit Tell Me You Love Me - possibly the most eye-opening series yet from HBO. I only watched the first episode, but I can honestly say it shocked even little ol' me - it would even have made Channel 4 at its raunchiest look pretty tame.

More on Freeview HD

Coming sooner than you may have thought: Freeview HD. There's an update on the pending arrival of high def Freeview services from the BBC, ITV, C4 and Five on the BBC Internet blog for those interested. Will Virgin be outpaced in the HD stakes by the most popular but technically weakest platform? If I were a gambling man...

"HD for all" call by head of BBC HD

Danielle Nagler, Head of BBC HD, gave a keynote speech at a major industry conference in London this week. The full transcript can be found on the BBC Internet Blog. Here's a flavour of her speech:

Through Freesat and Freeview, as well as the iplayer, the BBC is working to open up the routes into HD for audiences. While Sky and Virgin Media will undoubtedly continue to be an important part of our HD landscape, the non-subscription services in which the BBC is a partner - to be joined in time we hope by Project Canvas - offer important alternatives. Leaving HD as a premium product - whether in terms of content or platform - might make profits for some but would leave us ultimately failing to realise the true potential for UK audiences. Opening up the technology, to the point where it simply becomes the next television standard across the board, can deliver far, far more for all of us.

But the decisive factor will be providing content that audiences love.

The whole post is worth a read - nothing technical and nothing that will surprise, but interesting nevertheless.

June 24, 2009

Google Search added to this blog

I've added a Google search widget in the right hand column for those who quickly want to find posts relating to a particular topic.

BBC HD...now with added Red Button

In time for Wimbledon, the BBC has added some red button functionality to BBC HD - details here.
(Just checked and it works, albeit with the usual slow response of pressing red on the V+)

And I'm pleased to say that BBC HD subtitles appear to be working again.

Virgin, Setanta and ESPN update

Virgin will not reduce the price of its XL television pack despite the loss of six Setanta channels yesterday evening.
"Any customers paying for the Setanta Sports pack will no longer have any subscription fees to pay.

"As Setanta Sports was included at no extra cost in TV Size XL there will be no changes to pricing for this package.

"If you have size M or L TV and would like to continue to get ESPN America you just need to give us a call and we can add it to your TV pack for £10 per month. If you have XL TV and subscribed to it previously, you don’t need to do anything, the channel will still be available to you.

"We are working with Setanta and ESPN to understand where the content will be available. Due to licensing agreements, some content shown on Setanta may not be available elsewhere, but should it become available on other channels, we’ll be working hard to make sure the content is available to our customers."

Hmmm. No doubt more to follow as negotiations continue, but that £10 just for ESPN America is pretty steep and that last statement possibly suggests that some of ESPN content (HD?) may be platform-exclusive to Sky.
The Virgin Media Setanta Q&A has a few more details.
According to The Guardian, ESPN said yesterday that "the new ESPN channel, which will run alongside its existing UK channels, ESPN Classic and ESPN America, will be available on every platform, including cable, satellite and Freeview."

June 22, 2009

A Filmflex alternative?

Received an email from Andrew Fuller that I thought I share with readers of the blog for comment - let me know what you think.
I recently wrote to Virgin the following:

"This is not so much a suggestion towards a new service, but more of an enhancement to an existing one; Virgin Media provide movies on demand - movies are charged per viewing - via a third party (FilmFlex). It seems to me that Virgin are missing a trick here: Netflix (of the US) provide streaming movies (from a catalogue of 12,000, as opposed to your 500) on demand at a fixed monthly cost (you can watch the same movie as many times as you like, for example). Netflix has signed deals with the likes of Samsung, whereby Samsung, via a firmware update to their ethernet compatible blu-ray players (the P6000 or P6050 in the UK) can include Netflix with their blu-ray players, built-in.
Now, although Netflix is not here in the UK, I believe they will be soon, and then all Samsung need do is update the firmware of their UK version blu-ray players; I have one of these players and I must admit that as soon as this service is here in the UK, I'll be signing up to their monthly subscription.
Why does Virgin not, say, partner with Netflix (or, indeed, Lovefilm) to provide streaming movies for a fixed monthly fee; Netflix movies could also be HD too, due to Virgin's 50mbps service. I believe Virgin Media needs to move away from the dated movie rental format and adopt the subsciption format (which provide much better value)."
Now that Virgin have gone with Samsung to provide the new V+ box, I wonder if the introduction of Netflix of similar would be possible? I believe that the subscription model (as they are doing with music, when the new service comes online) offers better value.

No HD on 4OD

Richard Davidson-Houston (Channel 4 head of online products): "It would seem inevitable that we will go HD at some stage. I'll tell you absolutely straight that there is no one working on it. The problem for us, being a commercial organisation, is if we're going to stream in HD it costs us more money. Unless advertisers or somebody else is prepared to pay more money to us, then it's a very difficult thing to justify doing." [Story from Digital Spy]
Whether on not this applies to the Virgin Media version of 4OD is not known. Also, wasn't 4OD supposed to have its own Virgin Media portal by now (like the Beeb has with iPlayer)?

June 21, 2009

New HD site worth checking out

If you're reviewing your HD options you may want to check out hdtv-receiver.co.uk, a site that provides news and reviews about the different HD receivers, tuners and consoles available - Sky, Freesat and news on Freeview HD when it appears.

June 20, 2009

Wimbledon on BBC HD

Wimbledon coverage on BBC HD this year will be from the start of play each day (normally around 1pm I think) right through to 9pm-ish. For those who haven't seen it before, it's well worth watching in high def - one of the year's TV highlights in my book.
Also, next weekend Glastonbury coverage picks up when the day's tennis finishes and runs through to around 2am. Headliners this year are Neil Young (Friday), Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (Saturday) and Blur (Sunday). Cannae wait.

This blog

A quick word about this blog as a few posts ago I posted the 500th post which is a bit of a landmark.
Since starting up late in 2007 it's now rapidly approaching 250k visits and there've been over 320k page views. 84,000 unique visitors, and there are a pretty regular 1,000 visits a day, dipping down to around 600 at weekends.
I hope you guys find it useful and informative - it's a crying shame that Virgin don't heed the clamouring for more HD on UK cable and that their promises of more soon appear to be as empty and hollow as ever.

June 18, 2009

Virgin premium channels go the fibre route

According to this exclusive over on broadbandtvnews.com Virgin Media TV is no longer dependent on satellite dishes to feed its premium content:
The new arrangement sees over 40 channels including Sky Sports, Sky Movies, Setanta Sports, ARY Digital, B4U Movies, Disney Cinemagic and TV5 directly fed through to Virgin’s UK headends via fibre [from Mediacenter Betzdorf in Luxembourg]. Previously Virgin has taken the signals straight from satellite.
Anyone noticed any improvement? I still personally suspect that this Luxembourg move and the setting up of the Virgin Media Entertainment subsidiary is taking advantage of some tax laws for the subscription channel services, but you never know. No word if it's to facilitate any forthcoming HD services.

June 16, 2009

OFCOM report on Pay TV "coming soon"

According to trade journal Media Week, OFCOM looks likely to find in favour of Virgin Media, BT et al and punish Sky in the report on Pay TV services later this month:
Ofcom is expected shortly to propose a new regulatory regime that will require BSkyB to offer, or wholesale, its premium sport and movie channels to rivals such as Virgin Media on regulated terms[...]
Ofcom is expected to throw its weight behind so-called "wholesale must-offer" obligations, meaning that Sky wholesales designated premium channels to other pay-TV retailers at regulated terms.
It is thought that while the original complainants would support such a mechanism, the parties are eager for Ofcom to apply any wholesale must-offer remedy to all Sky's premium channels to prevent it withholding certain sports coverage. It is also thought the parties want Ofcom to fix wholesale prices at a level that promotes effective competition.
There's no mention in the article as to whether Sky's premium channels means the high definition versions of Sky sports and movies channels - but to my mind it would be a short-sighted ruling if it didn't. Keep those fingers crossed, Mr Berkett...

Coming soon to BBC HD*

Ashes to Ashes, Waterloo Road, Mary Queen of Shops, The Restaurant, Countryfile and the Culture Show will all be broadcast in HD when they return for new seasons. There is also talk about Top Gear finally making a proper appearance. Confirmation on this post from Danielle.

*(And that's genuine "coming soon", not the loose interpretation used by certain other companies)

June 15, 2009

Music service "coming soon" to Virgin customers

Not wishing to be outdone by Sky (but frequently being just that) Virgin has announced a streaming/download music service tie up with Universal. Details here.
(Yes, I know it's not HD but then this blog would be pretty static if I didn't follow a slightly wider brief these days.)

June 13, 2009

FX showing True Blood

One of HBO bigger successes of late has been the vampire series True Blood. Starring Emmy-winning Anna Paquin, this adult series from the man behind Six Feet Under and American Beauty has received strong reviews stateside but for some reason has taken a while to land on our shores. FX are showing season one from July 19th. Let's hope VM can do the honourable thing as it has with the latest series of Dexter and add this series to our On Demand programming next month. Or, even better, add FX HD in time.

Voom HD trickles into on demand

A long time back there was a Virgin announcement that they'd done a deal with a US HD service Voom. After many, many months, a couple of Voom programmes have turned up in HD On Demand, apparently featuring extreme sports.

June 12, 2009

Living HD coming this year

According to Broadcast Now, a high definition version of Living is coming this year, and it will be followed by HD versions of all of the Virgin Media TV channels:
Virgin Media managing director Johnny Webb said taking Living HD was “an absolute priority”, to kickstart an HD roll-out of all of the operator’s seven channels.
No more details at present. One assumes this will arrive on Virgin's own TV service, but one shouldn't take these things for granted.

Setanta saved?

There's an investor with a cheque book, but will it be enough and in time? BBC story here.

June 11, 2009

Five reveals HD simulcast plans for Freeview

...and presumably other platforms too. OFCOM has announced that Channel 5 will join the other public service broadcasters, the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 in launching four HD services on Freeview over the next few years. According to the OFCOM press release:

Channel 5’s application initially involves simulcasting its main public services channel programmes at peak time on HD. This means that popular programmes such as The Gadget Show, UEFA Europa League, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and blockbuster movie premiers could become available in HD from late 2010.

In the future, Channel 5 predicts sharing its HD channel with another broadcaster during daytime hours and supplying other services, such as Video on Demand in HD overnight.

Another peak-time simulcast then, similar to ITV1's HD plans. Five's films and US imports in high def will be most welcome, especially if they rescue 30Rock from its current home on the spin off backwater FiveUSA.

June 10, 2009

BBC HD blog

For some reason the BBC's HD blog RSS feed isn't updating properly, but Danielle has newly posted on the forthcoming summer highlights on the channel: here are some extracts.

At the end of June we'll have Wimbledon coverage as per previous years, bumping in to Glastonbury with coverage of the main stages late into the night. There's also a lot of comedy hitting the channel. The new series featuring Michael McIntyre started on BBC HD last Saturday and a new series of That Mitchell and Webb Look kicks off this week. Starting next week is Psychoville (a very dark comedy from The League of Gentleman team), and Krod Mandoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire . For those with more mainstream tastes, Graham Norton is hosting a new family entertainment show - Totally Saturday - there's a new comedy drama, Hope Springs, on Sunday nights, and Hotel Babylon returns on Fridays. Also new to the channel is BBC Three drama Personal Affairs, Casualty 1909, and documentaries about Henry VIII (Henry VIII - Patron or Plunderer) and Ben Fogle and James Cracknell's trip to the North Pole.

Full post here.

June 08, 2009

ITV1 HD on Freeview

OFCOM's report on the Freeview HD channel applications gives an interesting insight as to what the full ITV1 HD channel is going to be:
The ITV1 HD Evening Hours service, as a simulcast of the mixed genre ITV1 service, will provide a wide range of programmes which will increasingly be in native HD.
The [Freeview] service will operate from 18:00 to 23:00 seven days a week.
The service will include at 35% of native HD content at the start of 2010, rising to at least 60% at the start of 2012 and at least 70% at the start of 2014.
Odd. Cutting off at 11pm really means ending at 10.30, as any weekday programming after regular News At Ten timeslot is simply not going to fit. Maybe it will be different on Sky and Virgin, but it doesn't make a great deal of sense to me.
Channel 4's Freeview HD proposal is more straight forward:
“We propose to broadcast our 24 hour Channel 4 public service channel in HD simulcast.”
All new commissioned and acquired content will be delivered in native HD format by the start of 2012.
In all there are four HD "slots" to be available on Freeview; the BBC has one, ITV and C4 as above, and the final one is currently being assessed with Film4 or Five the most likely takers.

Setanta collapse "imminent"

According to the press, Setanta may not make it to the end of the week, dashing any hope of a Setanta HD offering next season. Coverage here:

June 06, 2009

Analogue switch off continuing

As of June 1st, the analogue service lost Sky Sports. Almost there...

Virgin Programme Guide Update

Virgin has renewed its contract for middleware software Liberate. There was also a glimpse of the future of the EPG ("electronic programme guide"), or, rather, there would be if I could find the illustrations referred to in this story from Broadband TV News:
A glimpse of Virgin’s current thinking was seen at Furturesource’s Driving Digital Content in London this week. Kevin Baughan, director of technical strategy, showed a ‘proof of concept’ drawing in a variety of components to make up the TV experience. “We’re moving away from programme guides and time, giving channels zones in which they can develop a relationship with the viewer.” Baughan showed stills of a guide where channels would have their own areas, directing viewers to linear, on demand and broadband content. However, logistics and the existing receiver inventory mean that even if Baughan was to receive immediate approval for his plans it would still take several years before they were implemented.

June 05, 2009

The new Samsung V+ reviewed

Thanks to Gids for the link to What HiFi's five star review of the new Samsung V+. And, yes, they do complain about the lack of HD services on Virgin, and, no, I don't know how anyone can get hold of one of these yet...

Comment of current "imminent" speculation

I'm sceptical about this current speculation because I heard similar noises from insiders a month ago, if anything even more definite...and nothing was announced. I was in two minds about posting this time, but I'm sure readers of this blog are familiar enough with these things to draw their own conclusions. Until VM issue a press release announcing actual channels and dates I'm clearly marking 'speculation' as such. And we've even had official press releases in the past that have proven empty promises...

June 04, 2009

"HD announcement this week"?

Insiders are hinting at something "imminent"; recent posts on MediaBoy's Cable Forum thread

Berkett's billion (no, not his bonus)

According to a finance-jargon-packed Virgin press release the company's complex refunding of its considerable debt has been quickly completed:
Neil Berkett, chief executive of Virgin Media, said: "Our successful raising of $1 billion in bonds, particularly in the current market, demonstrates the confidence investors have in our business and growth prospects. We have prudently managed our debt and continue to generate strong levels of cashflow whilst executing a financially disciplined strategy. Our business is in excellent shape and we continue to deliver a differentiated and highly competitive consumer proposition which exploits our strengths in next generation broadband and video-on-demand."
"Differentiated consumer proposition" that is, as in "our competition has loads of high definition channels...and we have one" ;o)

June 03, 2009

More HBO in HD

There's one of HBO's less well known series, Tell Me You Love Me, now available in Virgin's high definition on demand. I haven't tried it myself but click the link above if you want to know more. In all there are ten episodes - it never made a second season - and the show's main claim to fame was apparently its explicit sexual content; "a provocative and honest exploration of intimacy" as they say.
Good to see more episodes of Carnivale now available in HD - we're up to episode seven now, five more to go of the first season. Let's hope we also get the second (and final) season too, and it would be great to have seasons two and three of Big Love that were never picked up by Five.
And I'm really hoping they'll dig up the remarkable Deadwood in HD sometime soon.
Viva HBO!

Sky Video on Demand - "coming soon"

Sky boss Jeremy Darroch, speaking at the Merrill Lynch TMT Conference, has announced that Sky customers will finally get real Video on Demand services using the current generation of Sky+ boxes. “We’re able to innovate of this product. In the past, when we’ve innovated we’ve had to swap the box out. We’re already working on services like pull VoD, which did great in the lab and which we expect to bring to market in about a year’s time."
He was followed on stage by Neil Berkett - I don't know yet if Mr B announced anything new but will endeavour to find out. Stay tuned.

June 02, 2009

Virgin Chief Technology Officer quits

According to this report on Broadband TV News, Virgin Media's chief technology officer Howard Watson has left the company.
Watson was originally with Telewest; post merger he took on responsibility for technical and IT strategy, architecture, development and day-to-day operations of the company’s television and broadband platforms.

Digital Spy

I know a lot of visitors to this blog also regularly check out Digital Spy so I thought that this may be of interest.
Unfortunately DS had some issues last week with infected banner ads (see this story on The Register) - hopefully it's all resolved now and no-one was affected.

June 01, 2009

jPod in HD coming to Virgin On Demand UPDATED

Virgin are showing the Canadian series jPod via On Demand through the summer, in both standard def (via Virgin Central) and in high definition for V+ customers. According to the Virgin press release:
Comedy-drama jPod is based on the coming of age novel of the same name by Douglas Coupland and will be available for all Virgin Media TV Choice customers exclusively this summer in standard definition as well as crystal clear HD.
All thirteen episodes of jPod will be available in Virgin Media’s on demand library TV Choice for two months from 1st June, with the first four episodes also available in Virgin Central, the free on demand channel, throughout June.
From what I can gather the show had a cult following (much like the book) but was cancelled after 13 episodes - more on the show itself in this entry on Wikipedia.

UPDATE: The Guardian calls jPod "the best show of 2008 that no one saw";
"Set in Vancouver videogame company Neotronic Arts, the show follows the inhabitants of the titular jPod (an office where everyone's surname begins with J due to a Y2K glitch). Strange things are afoot in jPod. The podsters look to make history with the most sickeningly violent video game conceivable: BoardX, a spectacularly heinous skateboard slasher game that makes Grand Theft Auto look like Sonic the Hedgehog...
"If you like pacey, sharply scripted drama, punctuated by horrific CGI violence, then it is definitely worth your time."