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There's more to the picture than simply offering HDTV   

The National - 22 July, 2009
Author: Muhammad Ayish

It is clear that the Middle East’s television market is gearing up for thrilling transitions not only in its corporate structure or technological stature, but also in the quality of its content. This time, the magic phrase in the air is High Definition Television (HDTV). Last month’s announcement by Showtime Arabia, which has struck a pay-TV merger deal with the Orbit Group, of a major rollout of a full entertainment and sport HD package in 2010, has followed similar announcements by the UAE’s two telecommunications providers, Etisalat and du.

In the context of the current economic downturn, offering HDTV content provides cable and digital platform operators a competitive edge that is likely to induce further market expansion. With higher resolution, better colour reproduction, separate luminance signals and lifelike audio, HDTV promises to deliver a theatre experience in the comfort of your own home. But in the Middle East’s television market, long-dominated by free-to-air television, HDTV television providers have yet to grapple with two challenges: securing adequate super-resolution content and convincing consumers of how dramatic a change HDTV can deliver.

The introduction of HDTV to the UAE will enable the country to join leading global markets around the world. By the end of last year there were over 36 million HDTV households worldwide, up from 29 million at the end of 2007. The United States has 61 per cent of the total number of these households, but the technology is gaining popularity in Europe where over 130 HD channels are currently on offer.

Of course, the delivery of HDTV into markets such as Japan, the United States and Europe has been bumpy and slowed by technical, political and economic hurdles. The lack of an agreement on a unified technical standard, concerns over potential Japanese domination of global HDTV markets and the higher HDTV acquisition costs have all been factors in the development of this technology in those markets. But for the UAE, as compared with other markets in the region, its more liberal economic and telecommunications policies and higher per capita income may help expedite the arrival of an array of HD programming.

For decades, television production in this region has been based on analogue systems, though recently, more television channels and production houses have switched into full digital gear in both their production and transmission. But a substantial majority of content in the region is produced on equipment that is not HD compatible. So for cable television systems and digital platforms embarking on HDTV projects, a phase-in strategy would be helpful to ensure a smoother transition into this new age of television.

At the consumer end, the issue appears equally complex. Even when HDTV content is secured for delivery, subscribers need to make sure that their receiving equipment has relevant compatibility. As one international television consultant notes, the vast majority of households get their channels from low-end set-top-boxes that are not HD-compatible.

But there is also a cultural aspect that may limit the speed of HDTV’s spread to the UAE and region at large. It appears that consumers used to free-to-air television may not notice much improvement over existing standards when viewing HDTV images through a small display. I experienced this confusion last week when I noticed that programmes carried by three satellite television channels advertising to be broadcast in HD were no different from conventional offerings. But it is perhaps inappropriate to talk about HDTV in the context of free-to-air satellite television; this is not the platform intended for delivering content that requires so much bandwidth. But generally speaking, it is clear that for consumers to fully appreciate HDTV’s advantages, a screen size of 36 inches is required, with the greatest benefit realised on a screen that exceeds 48 inches. Even if consumers have money to spend, there may be another hitch: most rooms are too small to accommodate a direct-view monitor of this size.

It is obvious that the recent HDTV initiatives in the UAE will mark a new breakthrough in how consumers in the country experience television. But securing and developing HDTV content will continue to influence how this broadcast system fares in this market. I was pleased to see this reality being confronted by representatives from Showtime Arabia and E-Vision in their recent interviews with the press. Consumers in the UAE and the region would love to see such super-resolution entertainment delivered to their homes. But in the midst of so many uncertainties in the market, they also need to be confident that their HDTV experience is worth the investment.

Muhammad Ayish is a professor of communications at the University of Sharjah
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