The Channel 4 TV Planning Awards 2006: HDTV

High-definition television is the way forward for viewers and programme-makers, but it's not just a matter of plug and play, James Gomez warns.

High definition is the future of television. It's now a question of when, not if, we need to take notice.

High-definition TV is the natural next stage in the evolutionary process that has taken us from black-and-white analogue to widescreen colour digital over the past 50 years and, though it may be a few years before it becomes truly mass market, the journey has begun.

Few would argue that it looks and sounds great, offering increased screen resolution (about four times the normal number of pixels on screen) as well as support for cinema-style surround sound. The results include improved clarity, sharper images, increased depth of field and more vibrant colours. Research has highlighted particular benefits to movies, sport and natural- history programming.

HD finally arrived in the UK in 2006, with the launch of commercial services on cable and satellite, and sales of around 2.4 million HD-ready TVs - enough for one in ten homes. These sales seem to have been driven primarily by the consumer demand for ever-larger flat-screen TVs, with average set sizes growing by around an inch per year. By 2012, the average TV sold for the living room will be HD-ready as standard and could be as big as 38 inches, up from around 32 inches last year.

And it's at these larger screen sizes that the benefits of HD over current standard- definition services start to become clear. An SD image at this screen size may look fine in isolation but, compared with its HD equivalent, it can be disappointing.

However, the road to HD is by no means straight. Getting your shiny new HDTV to display HD images is not as easy as unpacking it from its box and plugging it in. In fact, several things need to be in place before this can happen.

First, the programme you're watching has to have been shot and produced in HD. Second, it needs to have been broadcast on an HD channel. Sky's HD service offered around ten of these channels at the start of the year, for which you need to pay an extra £10 per month. Third, you need to have an HD set-top box to decode the signal - just owning the right TV set is not enough.

All this can come as a surprise to many of those buying HD-ready TVs at the moment, and can be particularly frustrating for those who have switched to Freeview for their digital TV, because this currently does not have the capacity to broadcast HD channels - the Government needs to allocate some of the old analogue spectrum to the platform to enable this.

Others may first experience HD on their TVs through the new generation of HD games consoles and DVD players, which may leave many wondering why their TV pictures aren't quite as good.

However, once these difficulties are overcome, HD can also represent an exciting opportunity for content-makers and advertisers. It can make TV a more immersive and engaging medium, and therefore more likely to be noticed and remembered by viewers. Though extra costs may be involved in the short term, these should reduce substantially over time. Standard-definition ads that appear in the middle of an HD programme will be noticeably poorer in quality, particularly if some of the other ads are broadcast in HD. Some advertisers have already started experimenting with HD, and Sony was the first to air an HD ad in the UK last October, as part of its Bravia campaign.

This is a global phenomenon, and looking across to the US gives a good sense of where the market is going. HD is already big business there, and there were 50 HD channels available to view at the end of 2006. Last year, for the first time, the majority of ads during the Superbowl were shown in HD. Many of the big US programmes that make their way over to the UK are already produced in HD, and programmes produced in the UK that have the potential to be sold overseas are increasingly being produced in HD to safeguard their value.

Given all this, it really is a question of when - not if - we all need to start to shift our thoughts and actions towards the new technology. In the UK, it is still early days, but the move has started.

- James Gomez is a business analyst at Channel 4.