Sky TV today launched its high-definition offering dubbed My Sky HDi. The first channels out of the blocks with HD content will be Sky Sports 1 and 2, Sky Movies and Sky Movies Greats.
And, throwing the cat amongst the pigeons in the free-to-air space, TV3 will also be carried in HD on the new service.
Existing My Sky subscribers will be able to upgrade to the new service, and the new set top box, for $49.95. The new My Sky box has twice the hard drive storage of the existing My Sky box and an additional tuner so you can record two programmes at once and watch a third.
If you are a Sky subscriber but not currently a My Sky subscriber you have two options. You can join the new service and have your old box taken away for a joining fee of $599 (remember too that you do not own the My Sky box, you are just renting it). You will then pay $10 a month for HD service on top of your current subscription.
Alternatively, you can go for the multi-room option where you keep your old box as a second box for another room and get the new MY Sky HD box, for a fee of $599. You will then get a multi-room subscription free for four months (a multi-room subscription is normally $25 a month on top your usual subscription).
Output to your TV will be via HDMI and all high definition broadcasts will be at 1080i resolution. This means Sky TV here will film all its own high-def content at 1080i and all overseas shows to be broadcast in high-def will be scaled to 1080i.
The "i" in HDi stands for internet and the launch of IPTV with the new MY Sky box featuring an Ethernet connection built in. No details were available on this service and it is currently about a year away.
Sky chief executive John Fellet said high definition would be " the biggest change in television since the introduction of colour in the 1970s". He went on to say that the TV business had always been a race between the broadcast delivery technology and the TV sets themselves. Lately, he said, the TV sets had been winning. An analogue picture on an HDTV looked atrocious, a digital image helped, but a high-def image was what was needed.
Sky's director of Sports Kevin Cameron said the first high-def offerings would be events they covered themselves. To this end, Sky has built a multi-million dollar outside broadcast unit into a huge semi-trailer truck using Sony high-def equipment. This unit has been at work filming in high-def for the past few months and a further three trucks are on their way.
Starting from launch next month until the end of the year, Sky would broadcast 104 sports events in high-def that it had covered itself, and there would be further high-def content from offshore.
Sports fans can look forward to seeing high-def rugby (Tri-Nations and NPC), soccer (English Premiere league and Australian A-league), cricket (England vs South Africa), tennis (US Open), rugby league (NRL and UK Super league) and Nascar.
By August, said Cameron, their would be 500 hours of high-def sports per week and 90 hours on the weekend alone.
Further down the track, Sky has secured the rights to both the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. These two events would receive saturation coverage with the London Olympics having 22hrs of high-def coverage per day on the Prime channel, backed up by a further eight Sky channels boradcasting 24 hours a day.
By the time, there would also be offerings in the mobile TV space and video on demand.
In terms of movies, director of entertainment Travis Dunbar said 60% of movies would be available in high-def on launch, and up to 90% by January of next year. He also said that the gap between theatrical release and movies appearing on Sky was rapidly decreasing and Sky's movies were becoming more current as a result.
As you might expect, the first movies to get HD treatment will be blockbusters like Spiderman 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: World's End and The Bourne Ultimatum. These movies, said Dunbar, offered those who had invested in a home theatre system the most bang for their buck in terms of image and surround sound.
John Fellet also pointed out that sports in high-def was about the audio as well as the picture and Sky would be working hard to deliver sports events in Dolby 5.1 too.
In technical terms, high-def content will be delivered at bit-rates of about 14Mbits/s as opposed to 6-8Mbits/s for standard definition, and it certainly looked crystal clear in the demos featuring the Super 14 semi-final and the Black Caps one-dayer against England.
A spin off benefit will be that the newer, fatter pipe for bringing in high-def content from offshore will mean that images need to be less compressed before they are sent here, resulting in an improved image at this end for both high-def and standard-def broadcasts.