Digital Television in Europe

Representatives from European countries shared their views on iDTV.
Interactive Digital Television (iDTV)is a hot topic in Europe. While the broadcasting industry is bickering about deadline for the cut-off of analogue television signals, and consumer electronic companies and software companies are promoting their technical standards of the set-top box, producers of interactive television programmes are forced to convert their expensive programmes to several technical standards. But all the confusion in the European television industry can be over by 2010, at the utmost.

Recently a Business Round Table (BRT) on iDTV in Europe was held in Prague in July 2004. Representatives from various countries were present and gave their view on iDTV in their country. From the round it was clear that the UK is the most developed iDTV market in Europe. The launch of iDTV in the UK started in October 1998 and since that time 12.4 million households have converted, which amounts to 50 percent of all UK households. Very small in terms of households, but very active has been Finland. Since August 2001, Finland has started and is approaching the 20 percent of Finnish households milestone very fast with the installation of 50,000 iDTV set-top boxes a month. The Netherlands has officially started iDTV towards the end of 2003 and has now reached 2.6 million households. Representatives of Poland and the Czech Republic indicated that no iDTV is yet in place, lacking legislation. Although Italy was not represented at the BRT, the amount of set-top boxes will reach one million by the end of the year.

The round among the representatives at the BRT made clear that iDTV in Europe differs sharply from country to country. Every country has its own government policy. iDTV is not yet a matter of common policy of the European Union member states. If the pace of the UK had been followed, more than 77 million households in 15 EU states should have installed a set-top box. Beginning 2004, the counter stopped at 44 million households.

The Chain

iDTV requires a change throughout the whole production, programming and distribution chain. The digitalisation in the production environment, the middleware, the cut-off date and the set-top boxes all contain moments to make different choices.

One of the major drivers behind the change over from the analogue signal to the digital signal is the cut-off date. And in Europe almost every country has its own date. Even in countries themselves there are different cut-off dates. In Germany the agglomeration of the city of Berlin has changed over to the digital signal, while in other parts of Germany the analogue signal will be switched off by 2010 at the latest. In Belgium Flanders will switch over in 2005, while the French speaking part of Wallon will wait.

And of course, it is not easy to switch over as many companies are involved. Depending on whether the broadcast companies control the whole chain, they will be confronted with making decisions on choices. In a country like the Netherlands, there are public and commercial television companies, which distribute their programmes to 6.7 million households, of which 5.5 million households are connected by cable and 500,000 households by satellite. So some 20 broadcasting companies are dealing with some 10 cable and satellite distribution companies. Officially the switch over has started, but the cut-off date will be closer to 2010 than to 2007.

But also the set-top box is a source of difference. It can be the embodiment of a proprietary platform or a standard platform. The British Sky Digital, which controls 12 million users in the UK satellite market works with a settop box based on OpenTV, while the French Canal Plus works with Mediahighway. The standard platform for the set-top box in European countries is the Multimedia Home Platform (MHP). But although MHP is considered as a standard, not even the European Commission is willing to impose the standard on the 25 members state countries. But "European Union member states should continue to promote open and interoperable standards for interactive digital TV - including the Multimedia Home Platform (MHP) standard -on a voluntary basis", the EC recently stated. "In view of the complexity of the technological and market environment, the very different perceptions of interoperability held by market players, and the fact that interactive digital TV has not yet taken off on a larger scale in many member states, we felt that the digital television market should continue to develop unhindered for the present," commented enterprise and information society commissioner Olli Rehn of the European Commission. However, the EC will review the situation in 2005.

Interactive Creativity

While iDTV was taking shape through the cable, satellite and terrestrial distribution, a new phenomenon is coming up: ADSL TV or IPTV. So far the cable companies were changing from cable television companies to communication companies, drawing the triple play card (television, internet and telephony). But now they see the telecom companies adopting the same tactics; by offering ADSL or Fibre to the Home (FttH), the telecom companies can also draw the triple play card. And they start to do so, be it in most cases still experimentally. In France, Corner TV piloted a programme in bars and restaurants, offering small extracts of television and video clips as well as quizzes. The programme used television or video clips which could be overlayed with text and graphical information. In the Netherlands, KPN the incumbent telecom company has announced its intention to offer triple play to the home in competition with the offer of the cable company. Also broadcasting companies are looking at ADSLTV/IPTV for exploiting theme channels.

But ADSLTV/IPTV has the same problem as the other distribution companies. They will also have to select a proprietary set-top box or for the MHP box. And television viewers do not like a stack of set-top boxes.

All these technical difficulties and challenges do not make it easy for the creatives to produce for iDTV. Once a programme has been developed, it will have to be converted to MHP, OpenTV or Mediahighway. This will be a handicap financially and will make it more difficult to sell the programme to other stations.

iDTV programmes have several characteristics. The programmes are digitally recorded. Parts of the programmes can be copied and re-used. Many of the iDTV programmes are enhanced. With overlays, more information can be given on the subject. In a sports programme on cricket, personal data of a player can be displayed. iDTV programmes can be interactive; so with a channel selector or a keyboard, the user can answer questions or polls. Of course with a return channel such as a cable or telephone, reactions can be registered. And with the return channel, iDTV can even become personal, so that one can read the mail or the banking statements.

iDTV programmes can be divided in programme-related services and standalone services. The programme-related services add information to the television programme. The ultimate programme is of course the Electronic Program Guide (EPG). Looking up programme information will be easier than the present printed and electronic guides.

Interaction with a television programme can be interesting. An iDTV user can react to a television programme by voting. Most successful look the transaction related television programmes such as TV shopping and betting. Just before the horses start their race, the viewer can put up a bet from his couch.

However, the television screen can also be used as a computer screen for requesting information from internet, e-mailing, booking of tickets or travels and electronic banking.

New ways for producing iDTV programmes are being explored. So far the interactivity is coupled to a television format. Original iDTV programmes which can only be used on iDTV are seldom. But a lot can be expected from digital storytelling and interactive movie. A programme in which people tell jokes, can be made interactive in such a way that a viewer can vote to retain or remove a joke. In Europe, the European Media Plus programme stimulates workshops on iDTV, programme formats and interactive movies.

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