The decade-long wait to remove the red screen on BBC One HD in England is nearly over, according to plans outlined by the BBC today.
BBC One HD variants for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were rolled out during 2012-13, starting with Northern Ireland after the final stage of digital switchover in October 2012.
But in England, ever since BBC One HD launched, viewers have been unable to watch their regional programming. A red screen (pictured) advises viewers to make the switch back to standard definition. A situation blamed on various technical and financial constraints. In 2015, it was confirmed that plans were in place to offer a regional BBC One HD. Then in 2018, a lack of broadcast capacity and native HD broadcasting capability were cited as obstacles.
More recently, funding constraints led the BBC to talk about “creative solutions” to make regional BBC One HD a reality.
In a major change in direction for the BBC, the corporation has announced plans for fully regionalised BBC One HD. It’s part of a wider plan to improve how it serves audiences across the UK, moving staff and programme-making out of London.
Details of exactly how the BBC will now achieve regionalisation of BBC One HD have not been confirmed.
In some regions, the service is expected to launch with regional news being upscaled to HD until all equipment can be upgraded. Regional centres including London, Salford and Plymouth already benefit from newer equipment. Other regional centres still rely on aging equipment that is waiting to be upgraded. The BBC has been mulling over the most cost effective way of upgrading equipment and infrastructure using the latest IP-based technology, aware of the speed of technological change that has made some technology obsolete within years of installation.
As BBC One HD offers more regional services, it will appear in a more prominent position at the top of channel lists. Sky, Virgin Media and Freesat will do a HD/SD swap where the HD version matches the regional SD service. ITV already utilises this on satellite and cable, where ITV now offers all but two regions in HD. As a result, ITV HD appears in the third slot instead of a SD service in England and Wales. Only ITV Border Scotland and ITV Channel Television remain SD-only.
Analysis: How can a regionalised BBC One HD be offered to viewers?
One of the creative solutions being touted is delivering regional news opt-outs via the internet to connected devices. The BBC has been developing a feature to allow TVs switch from the main national version of BBC One HD to a internet stream carrying the relevant regional news service, known as content substitution. It is in the specifications for all new Freeview Play devices from 2021.
In a response to a recent consultation on Freeview channel numbers, the BBC opened up the option for at least some HD regions to be available over the air. It said: “Currently we do not have all the English regional variants of BBC One available in HD – however, we look forward to being able to make them available over time and to list them in slot 1 of the EPG also, whether those channels are delivered via broadcast means or via IP.”
The regional structure for HD channels on Freeview in England is currently based on larger areas than actual TV regions. The infrastructure is used by both BBC and ITV, whose HD channels are carried on the same Freeview multiplex.
As a result, ITV can only make some HD regions available on Freeview in England. These are Central West, London, Meridian E and Granada. This means many viewers currently receive the wrong regional news in HD. An example: viewers in Cornwall receive ITV Central from Birmingham on Freeview HD, but West Country in standard definition.
Further regional versions of the multiplex will need to be introduced, so that the regional structure matches existing SD services. This requires a technical upgrade and new equipment. Without this upgrade, the BBC could still offer a small selection of regions on Freeview, including the planned new BBC One North of England service, but with only one of its four sub-regions.
The BBC will need to pay for additional transponder capacity to broadcast more regional versions of BBC One HD on Sky and Freesat, if the current status quo of SD services continues. The broadcaster has recently signed an agreement with satellite operator SES maintaining their current number of transponders.
At present, the BBC under-occupies its two HD transponders: while ITV fits in six HD channels per multiplex, the BBC’s encoders only cater for five per transponder. At times, there are over 20Mbps of unused bandwidth. In addition to the extra BBC One HD regions, BBC Two Northern Ireland HD also still needs to be added to satellite.
ITV already offers a full regional HD service on satellite. Here, it has begun to reduce the number of standard definition services. Viewers with SD-only receivers in a number of regions will no longer receive their regional news. But SD viewers are in the minority. Freesat has only certified HD compatible equipment since 2013. And Sky Q is in 60% of Sky subscriber’s homes, with older Sky+HD boxes accounting for most the rest.
Therefore, the status quo, with the BBC broadcasting in both HD and SD isn’t something that needs to continue forever. Reviewing SD services would allow satellite capacity to be reused for HD. There are two reasons: First – A growing number of channels are opting not to broadcast in both SD and HD. There is no need if you are a free-to-air channel and your viewers are using HD equipment. And second – Sky’s support for older SD-only receivers will not continue indefinitely. It continues to encourage SD viewers to upgrade to a newer box. As a commercial organisation, Sky is under no obligation to continue supporting SD if it is not cost-effective.
On the iPlayer, once an internal stream delivering BBC One HD for a region is available, it can be deployed. As with other BBC services, adaptive bitrates aim to offer the best quality available based on the the internet connection being used.
In a similar manner to iPlayer, once a regional HD service is available, it can be delivered to Virgin Media’s network. Virgin Media will then substitute the current England-wide version of BBC One HD with the relevant regional version.
However the regionalisation of BBC One HD is achieved, there are many complex technical changes and upgrades that need to take place to make it happen. Previous BBC management was concerned that the cost of making changes was not the best use of licence fee money. New management realises they’re falling behind with the times.