NTL Telewest's head of TV strategy, Mark Horley, answers a bunch of high-def questions posted in the HEXUS.community, as well as a couple we threw in for good measure. He sheds some light on NTL’s plans to introduce a high-definition service early in 2007 - accompanying Telewest's existing HD service - and sorts out some technical queries. Hopefully, his responses will be informative and useful when you're considering which high-definition TV service to choose.
HEXUS: Have you a rough idea of a rollout date of high-definition for NTL customers, and whether it will take the same format as Telewest's TVDrive system?
MH: We are planning to launch a personal video recorder for NTL customers in early 2007.
HEXUS: How much will the NTL HD service cost?
MH: That's still to be confirmed.
HEXUS: Why is it necessary to charge people extra for HD, surely if you offer it for the same price as the usual services you would get more custom?
MH: The extra £10-15 that Telewest customers pay [each month] for the new TVDrive box reflects the fact that this is a new personal video recorder with HD capability. We don’t charge for the box itself, even though a new box is a significant cost to us. Compared with the £300 Sky charge for their HD box, we think it’s a great deal. TVDrive has a number of notable functions, such as an eight-day EPG, 160GB storage, three tuners and the usual functionality you would expect from a PVR, such as the ability to pause live TV.
We currently have a number of HD BBC Worldwide programmes, such as Blue Planet and Super Volcano and we’ll be launching the new BBC and ITV trial HD channels in time for the World Cup. All this content is free. As we begin to add more on-demand programmes and channels to the service, we’ll be looking at the best way to charge for premium, on-demand HD content.
HEXUS: What sort of support will be offered for those without the HD TVDrive boxes. Will support for older boxes be phased out?
MH: We currently have around three million digital TV customers and we have absolutely no plans to stop offering the standard digital service or supporting the older boxes. The key difference between a Sky or Freeview customer and an NTL Telewest customer is that if our box breaks, no matter how old it is, we will come to your house to replace it. With Sky or Freeview, you are on your own once the warranty runs out. Although our PVR with HD is an important and exciting addition to our product line-up, our standard digital TV service is still very much the core product.
HEXUS: What don't you promote your TVDrive system like Sky? I have not seen much press or TV advertising and the service is hidden away on your website?
MH: We do! We are currently running advertising across the sports pages of the national press, plus we have signed a deal with Currys which means TVDrive is now available in all stores within Telewest areas. Telewest franchises cover around 20 per cent of the UK, so we focus on regional press and radio advertising to ensure we only reach consumers who can actually get the service. We’ve also had lots of positive articles and reviews written about TVDrive, including in the national press.
HEXUS: Will there be CableCARD or similar support? Windows Vista is out in January and then every new Windows PC running Home, Pro and Plus version will be able to record encrypted high definition streams; do you plan to support this usage?
MH: We don’t support it at the moment. We believe we can offer functionality like PVR in a much more user-friendly way where the consumer wants it – on the main TV in the living room, through our own set top boxes.
HEXUS: What are your supported high-def resolutions, will you be the same as Sky and broadcast only in 1080i?
MH: We support 720p and 1080i, although current HD content from BBC Worldwide is all encoded at 1080i. As more HD content becomes available we will broadcast it in the format we receive it in.
HEXUS: Will the merger with Virgin affect high definition services? Is there any timetable for this merger?
MH: No, there isn’t a timetable as the deal is yet to be voted on by Virgin shareholders.
HEXUS: Is there any truth in the rumour that NTL will be able to introduce an HD service in time for the World Cup?
MH: Unfortunately we won’t be able to offer a PVR and HD to NTL customers in time for the World Cup but we are already offering it to Telewest customers.
HEXUS: Do your TVDrive boxes support HD format over DVI and component connections?
HEXUS: How do you view your position in the HD market compared to Sky?
MH: We were the first platform to launch an HD service and we will be the only commercial platform showing all the World Cup matches in HD. TVDrive is a superior spec to Sky’s new HD Sky+ box - with three tuners versus two and an eight-day electronic programmed guide. It’s also better value for money with no up-front fees and costs just £10-£15 extra a month.
The World Cup is shaping up to be a pivotal event for HD and we’ll be seeking feedback from customers to shape the service going forward. This gives us a real advantage over Sky who are currently struggling with demand. Telewest already has thousands of customers with TVDrives installed who will be able to enjoy the World Cup in HD. Combine this with our new TV-on-demand service, now available to over two million homes and we have the most sophisticated TV service in the UK.
HEXUS: Will there be any exclusive HD content on either TVDrive or the new NTL service?
MH: We’ve already announced that we will be the only commercial digital TV platform carrying ALL the World Cup matches in HD and we’re keen to add more HD content onto the service.
HEXUS: Thanks very much for answering our questions.
Got any views on Mark's comments. Does anything he's said affect you? If so, come and discuss things in the HEXUS.community.
Update - May 22, 18:00
In the above HEXUS.community forum thread relating to this interview, the question was asked, post-publication, why NTL won't be introducing HD until 2007?
We emailed that question to Mark Horley who responded saying,
MH: The main reason why NTL customers won't see HD at the same time as Telewest customers is because the box that supports HD - the TVDrive box - will not be launching on the NTL side until end of 2006/early 2007. There is a huge amount of work to be done to make sure that this box and the code that resides on it can interface with all the NTL back-end systems. As always when launching new products, we will be conducting exhaustive user testing to ensure that it is a good-quality customer experience.
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