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:

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

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

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


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" - . 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, 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
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?