High-definition television in the United Kingdom is currently at an early stage of adoption. The first broadcasts began in 2006 and the number of channels has grown to 32 as of late 2008.
Most channels in the United Kingdom remain broadcast, and largely viewed, in standard-definition but most major broadcasters have begun or are soon beginning their initial forays into high-definition television. Similarly, the vast majority of viewing still takes place in standard-definition though penetration of high-definition displays and receivers is increasing.
High definition broadcasts are currently available over digital satellite, both subscription and free-to-air, as well as digital cable. Limited trials of over-the-air high-definition television broadcasts have been undertaken and there are plans for permanent broadcasts following digital switchover.
High-definition broadcasts are available on free-to-air digital satellite, the Sky+ HD satellite service and Virgin Media (cable) with BBC, ITV and Channel 4 channels available under contracts that expire in 2008. A new service, called Freesat launched on 6 May 2008, initially carrying the BBC HD channel. ITV have been trialling part-time HD broadcasts via the red-button service, ITV HD at first exclusively available on Freesat, although the service can now be manually tuned in on certain other satellite receivers including the Sky+ HD box. Channel 4 broadcasts selected programmes in HD via Sky HD and it is anticipated that they will eventually also broadcast over Freesat.
The BBC HD channel is available without subscription on digital satellite, and may be received by anybody with suitable equipment — a high-definition satellite receiver and a satellite dish. Many satellite viewers currently opt for a full Sky subscription which provides extra channels.
The BBC initially operated BBC HD on a trial basis on Sky Digital & the Telewest cable (later Virgin Media) platform. Following full approval by the BBC Trust, the service is expanding its hours and aims to become a full-time service.
The ITV Network started broadcasting a trial service on digital cable television as well as on the Digital Terrestrial Television trial in London during the 2006 Football World Cup. The service ceased after this period, but a new HD service began to be made available with the launch of Freesat, on 7 June 2008, where selected programmes are offered in HD format, and accessed by the red button on Freesat receivers. ITV intended to spend £10m during 2008 on supporting ITV HD. Currently, there are no plans to launch via Sky.
Channel 4 launched its HD service on digital satellite in December 2007. The channel is encrypted, but is available with a free-to-view viewing card. There is some speculation that the channel may go free-to-air alongside BBC HD when its current contract with BSkyB expires.
Five does not yet operate any HD service, but has been awarded a licence for HD transmissions on Freeview from 2010. The content is expected to be a simulcast of its main channel, with own productions and US acquisitions in HD.
British Sky Broadcasting began HD transmissions of several channels in May 2006.
As yet, there have been no full-time terrestrial HD transmissions other than two low-power trials in London. Although the spectrum used to broadcast digital television is currently too limited to allow HD transmission, the industry expect that new transmission and compression formats will allow full-time HD channels as early as late 2009.
Satellite: Sky HD
Sky+ HD has been carrying HD channels since May 2006. The platform now has a mixture of 33 free and subscription channels broadcasting in HD.
Freesat launched on 6 May 2008. It provides a subscription-free alternative to Sky and includes support for HD (BBC HD & ITV HD are available to receive with the Freesat HD box).
Freesat is a not-for-profit company formed by the BBC and ITV, marketing itself as being completely free from subscription charges or contracts, although viewers of course are obliged to purchase a suitable satellite receiver and have a satellite dish installed if they do not already have one. Freesat receivers are available in both standard definition and high definition cable versions. HD channels are available only when the satellite receiver is capable of supporting it.
Virgin Media cable carries the BBC HD channel and on demand content from several broadcasters as part of its V+ service.
IPTV: BT Vision
BT Vision, a hybrid digital terrestrial and IPTV service, carries pay-per-view high-definition programmes, which the viewer downloads to the BT Vision set-top-box then watches when the download is complete. The HD service launched in February 2009.