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High-Def Crosses the Pond

New Year's Eve will ring in a new broadcast era in Europe. The continent's first HDTV service, Euro1080, will be launched in old-world style with broadcasts of the Vienna New Year's Eve concerts. The new network is the brainchild of Belgian high-definition production company Alfacam and will do something many in the industry believed wouldn't be done for many years: bring HD to Europe.

"There is so much content produced in HD in Europe that Alfacam decided to initiate an HDTV channel itself," says Rob de Vogel, Euro1080 vice president. "We know that, in the beginning, the number of real households that will be able to receive our signal will be very limited."

And how. Even by de Vogel's own calculations the potential audience is minuscule. He believes that, at most, the number of HD-capable sets is in the thousands. And with no organization the equivalent of the FCC mandating that TV sets be HD-capable, Euro1080 has to find other partners to help with the push. That's why it has linked arms with the consumer-electronics industry, which itself is figuring out how to get an HDTV foothold in Europe.

De Vogel says that manufacturers of HDTV sets will advertise on Euro1080. "A number of big companies that would like to position themselves as a high-end player are going to put advertisements on our service, which will reach homes, small venues, retail outlets and sports bars."

The network has already secured financial and technological support from five companies. The company will hold a prelaunch event at the International Broadcasting Convention in Amsterdam Sept. 12-13. The event will involve broadcasts from France, the U.K. and Japan (with NHK handling the production in Japan). Panasonic will provide plasma screens and HD recording gear, EVS will provide cinema servers, and Barco will provide projectors. Among the HD production gear, De Vogel says, is Thomson Broadcast & Multimedia gear, including LDK6000 HD cameras and Trinix HD routing and DD/Seraph HD production switchers.

The service will initially be available for free via satellite to households equipped with plasma, LCD or native-HD-resolution TV sets and an HD-compliant decoder box.

"We want to have free, non-subscription flow, at least for the first few years," de Vogel explains. "To have a subscription increases the complexity of the operation considerably, and the additional revenue it generates is not worthwhile to have [the content] encrypted."

Euro1080 also wants to make sure viewers without HD sets can experience the content. For those who lack the necessary equipment at home, Euro1080 will set up "event cinemas," or theatres outfitted with electronic projection systems, 60-foot screens and 5.1-surround sound systems. Viewers purchase a ticket as if they were going to the movies and then can watch live or near-live events in a new way. Monies generated at the box office will be distributed among Euro1080 and the events' rights holders, a financial opportunity Vogel sees as especially beneficial to musicians, who he says can expand their audience without having to increase performances. The channel promises to deliver two event-cinema programs a week through 2007. The company is currently looking to sign up theaters to host the events.

The theater experience echoes a recent offering by HDNet here in the U.S. Last May, HDNet joined forces with Major League Soccer and theater operator Regal Cinemedia to show four live Major League Soccer contests over the course of four weeks in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Denver. "The response to events in theaters, whether MLS soccer or football, has been very positive here in the States," says HDNet founder Mark Cuban. "We expect to work with more theaters and expand our reach."

Now that Euro1080 has made the preliminary steps toward expanding HDTV in Europe, cable operators are beginning to express interest in having HD channels in the future. As operators begin to offer more channels, he believes, HD may be the type of service that operators could find attractive. "To be honest, people are not interested in having a channel 41, 42 and 43 if it is more of the same. We talked to larger cable networks, and the interest is certainly there."

The discussions concerning cable are currently about the investment it would take to bring HD cable to subscribers. The incremental cost for going from SD to HD, de Vogel says, may not be a lot on an individual basis but is a substantial investment for a larger operator.