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BBC HD Retrospective: Channel bids adieu, makes way for BBC Two HD

The BBC HD channel is hanging up its boots as it prepares to make way for BBC Two HD. Before that happens, we’re taking a quick trip down memory lane here at Recombu Digital. 

We remember the good old days before BBC HD was even a thing, from the campaign that started it all through to the 2009 picture quality row, to the launch of BBC One HD, which precipitated the retirement of BBC HD.

Elsewhere, we’ve detailed exactly how you’ll be able to capture the last ever (?) transmission of the famous BBC Test Card, so make sure your set-top boxes are set up to record this high-def slice of nostalgia.

BBC HD will cease to be on 6:00AM March 26, 2013. Until then, let’s have a look and see what delights the Beeb’s first high definition channel has provided us with. 

BBC HD Retrospective: Channel bids adieu, makes way for BBC Two HD
One final glimpse of BBC HD before it transitions to BBC Two HD

In the beginning (well, 2005 AD)… Ofcom’s Digital Dividend Report is published

Way back in 2005, Ofcom announced the Digital Dividend Report, an investigation into what should be done with the extra space in the airwaves that would be available as a result of the Digital Switchover.

There were proposals for the new spectrum to be used for a number of things, 4G, wireless broadband and HD channels on Freeview. Almost immediately there was concern about proposals for HD channels and preliminary research which suggested that people weren’t that bothered about HD on Freeview.

“In around 2005, Ofcom did some very shoddy research and claimed that no-one was interested in high definition TV on Freeview,” says Alex Lane, editor of Recombu Digital.

“This provoked a massive backlash from home entertainment fans, TV manufacturers, broadcasters and the tech press – of which I was a part as the editor of What Satellite & Digital TV magazine. A successful petition and a popular campaign convinced Ofcom to conduct some better research where they actually showed people high definition TV, and the results were very different…”

HD for All: a campaign is born

The HD for All campaign was formed in response. Alongside this campaign was an e-petition started by developer Kieran Kunhya and submitted to the UK government. Both were aimed at getting Ofcom to allocate unused digital TV spectrum to the public service broadcast providers – BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5.

Kunhya argued that the UK should pioneer the HD TV revolution ‘in the same way that John Logie Baird did in the 1930s’, and pointed to the fact that the US and Australia had already deployed HD TV while the UK at the time was lagging behind.

The government, Ofcom and King Herod respond

The official response to the campaign was underwhelming for those involved in HD for All.

The government said:

“Like Ofcom, the Government believes that technology-neutral auctions offer the most effective way of allocating spectrum. However, we also accept Ofcom’s view that some applications generate benefits for society, and that it is vital that these benefits continue to be captured in a world where spectrum is a flexible, market-based resource.”

BBC HD Retrospective: Channel bids adieu, makes way for BBC Two HD
Time’s Up – BBC HD will cease to be from 6:00AM, March 26, 2013


The BBC and Channel 4 begin HD trials

The BBC and Channel 4, undeterred, wanted to prove that HD on Freeview and satellite TV was viable and began a series of trials, aiming to be ready in time for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany.

The trials were a success, demonstrating that HD broadcasts were not only viable on Freeview, but that there was a significant demand for it. The BBC and Channel 4 reported that 98 per cent of the 450 trialists wanted HD on Freeview and 90 per cent said that the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 should be at the helm of HD developments.


The BBC HD trial channel launches – on Sky and Virgin Media

A BBC HD channel was initially launched as a trial service on May 15, 2006. Despite the enthusiasm for HD PSB channels, the BBC HD trial channel first launched on pay platforms Sky HD and Virgin Media V+, as well as a small number of free-to-air digital satellite set-top boxes.

BBC HD initially only broadcast three to nine hours of TV each day during this trial period. The first ever made for HD programme broadcast on BBC HD was Planet Earth, on May 27, 2006. BBC HD would eventually become a full channel in December 2007.

Freesat customers were able to tune in to BBC HD in May 2008 upon launch of Freesat HD. A year later, Freeview viewers wouldn’t be able to access the channel until the launch of Freeview HD in December 2009.

BBC HD would be available to all Freeviewers in areas where the digital switchover had been completed, to viewers with either a Freeview HD set-top box or TV, and to viewers in many other areas – like London – where there was a gap to squeeze in a low-power HD multiplex. 

BBC HD Retrospective: Channel bids adieu, makes way for BBC Two HD

Germany 2006 World Cup broadcast in HD, alongside Doctor Who

The launch of BBC HD in 2006 also saw matches from the FIFA World Cup in Germany broadcast. This also means that international failure of the England team – to Portugal on penalties – was also shown in HD for the first time.

After that, BBC HD would be the go-to channel for live HD coverage of international events including the Euro 2008 Championships, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and most recently the 2012 London Olympic Games.

“The first few years of BBC HD were one treat after another: the World Cup, David Attenborough’s Planet Earth, and Doctor Who were just a few of the TV shows given an amazing makeover,” remembers Alex Lane.

It wasn’t a treat for everyone though. Alex adds an anecdote: “Not everyone was comfortable with HD’s new level of detail. In one interview, a female BBC News presenter turned to me under bright studio lights and asked: “How will I look?” I was speechless.”


The 2009 Picture Quality Row

So far so good, but the quest for HD for the masses wouldn’t be complete without one more flame war. In August 2009, the BBC altered the transmission encoders used to broadcast the BBC HD channel which led to a drop in picture and sound quality for many users.

This led to the formation of the BBC HD Campaign which was successful in eventually getting the Beeb to make the necessary changes. Picture quality was eventually increased from 1440×1080 to 1920×1080 (closer to Full HD) and the BBC adopted variable bitrate encoding, which allowed the BBC to maintain overall bandwidth while increasing it for coverage of things like live sporting events and Strictly Come Dancing, where there’s a lot of motion.

BBC One HD arrives in 2010

Alongside the adoption of improved broadcast techniques, the BBC launched BBC One HD, in November 2010. BBC One HD arrived simultaneously on all of the digital TV platforms capable of supporting HD broadcasts.

While the majority of content shown on BBC One HD was shot in high definition, any repeats or standard definition programming was upscaled. Upon launch, BBC One HD was also not region-specific, so local news bulletins would not be shown on the channel.

In 2012, BBC One Northern Ireland, BBC One Scotland, BBC One Wales would all launch their own variants of BBC One HD.


Plans for BBC Two HD 

In 2011, it was announced that BBC Two HD would replace the BBC HD channel. Given that much of the content on BBC HD was high definition versions of BBC Two programmes, announcement of BBC Two HD sealed the fate of the BBC’s original flagship HD channel.

In February 2013, it was announced that BBC HD would shut down on March 26. On air for nearly seven years, the channel has paved the way for two HD channels from the BBC and also blazed a trail for the likes of Channel 4 HD and ITV HD.

BBC HD ceases transmission tonight. In its final moments, the HD version of the iconic BBC Test Card will be shown from about 1:30am tomorrow morning. BBC Two HD will begin broadcasting on 6:00AM, March 26. 

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