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


  • 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


  • 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


  • 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)


  • 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
Luxe HD
Bio HD
National Geo Wild HD
Rush HD
Eurosport HD
Good Food HD
Sundance 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:


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.

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?!