U.K. b'casters pledge high-def future

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LONDON -- U.K. broadcasting powerhouses the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five are presenting a united high-def front, pledging to introduce their own free-to-air high-definition channels in the next few years.

The quartet said Tuesday that they have signed "a non-binding memorandum of understanding that, if agreed, would deliver high-definition (HD) channels on free-to-air digital service Freeview by the projected completion of digital switchover in 2012."

It marks a leap of faith for the mainstream broadcasting players.

Potentially, from late-2009/2010, BBC HD -- given the nod Monday by the BBC Trust -- ITV HD and Channel 4 HD could all be available on Freeview, with Five HD launching as soon as capacity is available -- by 2012 at the latest.

Plans are subject to the relevant regulatory agreements and conditional on the necessary board approvals by the individual companies. But the cross-company agreement encompasses the use of new technologies, which will increase the capacity available on Freeview.

It also will see a rearrangement of some of the channels carried on Freeview, in line with Ofcom's suggestion, setting aside one of the BBC's two multiplexes for the carriage of not only BBC HD but also ITV HD, Channel 4 HD and -- as soon as technically possible -- Five HD.

The agreement follows talks with media watchdog Ofcom and the government regarding the launch the new services that consumers want, in particular free-to-air high definition.

A variation of the relevant BBC multiplex license to carry HD services will be subject to approval from Ofcom.

The proposed agreement also will require the approval of the BBC Trust.
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