Almost exactly 10 years ago, on 22 May 2006, Sky launched their commercial HD service in the UK. It ushered in a new era of next generation broadcasting and was followed only a month later by the first set of Blu-ray movie titles with even higher picture quality (and ensuing consumer confusion over the differences between HD Ready and Full HD televisions). It also sounded the death knell for the venerable CRT TV sets that had graced our homes for decades, as the rise in HD coincided nicely with the emergence of affordable HD capable LCD TVs that quickly replaced them.
It took a while for HD to really take off, but over the subsequent five years most UK broadcasters launched HD channels and began a full migration which is still not complete today. HD has been a big consumer hit and arguably set the foundations for what is now described as the ‘new golden age of television’ with a high quality canvas on which so many new big budget TV series have been displayed.
But just as HD broadcasting becomes near ubiquitous, its successor, UHD, has already arrived and the industry has changed shape. Sky did not blaze the trail to the next generation of TV this time around. Netflix, whose streaming service did not even exist back in 2006 and is now a global media powerhouse, has been offering UHD content for some time. The race to launch the first UHD TV channel in the UK is also over, having been won by BT Sport, another relative newcomer to the broadcasting scene, last year.
This new industry structure means that HD may be the last time that a major television upgrade happens as a managed event. UHD has emerged quite differently and in a much less co-ordinated way, for better or worse. The various elements of UHD – more pixels (4K), brighter pixels (HDR), more colourful pixels (WCG) and faster pixels (HFR) – have not come as a fixed package. Instead we have seen TV sets, content and channels become available incrementally as each element has reached availability. This may be the new normal.
Advances in display technologies, motion imaging, material science and audio enhancements are accelerating and television itself blurs into a more diverse media consumption landscape. With Virtual and Augmented Reality both gathering pace, and huge investment, we are likely to see faster technology iterations at the consumer facing side of our industry driven by a more diverse group of innovators.
So as we look back at the relatively managed transition from SD to HD, and the consumer uptake that followed, we should try to understand how much of that learning can be applied to the next phase, while recognising that our industry is quite a different place than it was a decade ago. It’s hard to predict how different 2026 might be from today.
Steve Plunkett, Chief Technology Officer