Grade pleads high-def hardship

ITV boss wants HD spectrum 'gifted' to major b'casters

ITV executive chairman Michael Grade warned Wednesday that consumers who have invested millions of pounds in high-definition TV sets will be "bitterly disappointed" unless the government releases free HDTV spectrum allowing the public service networks here to launch free-to-air HD channels.

To date, HD services only are available on pay TV platforms like British Sky Broadcasting, which has taken a lead in the HD space and found HD to be a significant driver of consumer demand.

Speaking at a Royal Television Society seminar on the HDTV issue, Grade said HDTV will become a "digital divide" created by "unequal access to the benefits of new technology," unless Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell and other government ministers take immediate action to release digital terrestrial spectrum to the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five.

Grade said that government plans to auction off spectrum to the highest bidder will put the price out of reach for commercial broadcasters.

"There is no obvious significant incremental revenue opportunity from simulcasting ITV1 in HD and no evidence from the U.S. or Canada that advertisers are prepared to pay more for HD," he told the RTS seminar.

"Moreover, we would be competing in an auction with, among others, pay TV and mobile providers who could pass any spectrum bid directly on to customers. And remember, the cost of spectrum is in addition to the costs of simply transmitting an HD channel, which are likely to be in the tens of millions. Make no mistake, the world is moving to high-definition technology, not simply for television but for many devices which use TV screens."

Grade warned that the U.K. as a whole will lose its cutting-edge role in television if HD spectrum is not "gifted" to the major broadcasters in the same way that digital terrestrial frequencies were in the late 1990s.

"It seems very clear to me that, if we are to maintain our leading position in television worldwide, our industry urgently needs a clear domestic imperative to justify a significant investment in HD production across most genres of programming," he said. "I don't think I am overstating it to suggest that the alternative is suboptimal investment in HD production and a significantly weakened place for the U.K. in the global market."

Last year, nearly 2.4 million HDTVs were sold in the U.K., a fivefold increase compared with 2005. Independent market research from GFK predicts that 80% of households will have a HD television set by the end of 2010.