High and dry

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High definition television can lift your experience of watching TV to a whole new level. However, there are only a few HD channels available in India right now, says Moumita Chakrabarti

Spoilsport: Right now Indian viewers do not have access to a single HD sports channel
Whether it is Tata Sky or Dish TV, Airtel or Reliance, almost all direct-to-home (DTH) service providers have been extolling the virtues of watching television in high definition (HD). It’ll give you life-like, crystal clear audio-video quality, they claim, and a host of other added benefits, such as ad-free programmes, as well. If the promos are to be believed, high definition could lift your experience of watching television to a whole new level.

There is of course no doubt that HD gives you a high resolution viewing experience similar to that of watching a 35mm movie. As Salil Kapoor, chief operating officer, Dish TV India Limited, says, “Channels transmitted through HD have five times more picture clarity than non HD channels.”

So should you subscribe to a HD package with your television service provider? Before you do, you need to know and keep in mind some things.

Going HD requires you to, first, get a television set that’s HD compatible and, second, trade your standard definition set top box for a high definition one. You also have to change your cable to what is called “high definition media interspace” (HDMI). The good thing is that most DTH operators include the HDMI cable in the total installation price.

However, if you think that opting for an HD package with your service provider will enable you watch the 100 and more channels on your TV in sparkling high definition, think again.

At present only eight HD channels are available in India, including National Geographic, Discovery, Star Plus, Star World, Star Movies and Star Gold. Two other HD channels, iConcerts, which is a niche live music channel, and Movies Now, are available only on Reliance Big TV. And just in case you want to catch some exciting sporting action in high definition, forget it. Right now, Indian viewers do not have access to a single HD sports channel.

Vikram Mehra, chief marketing officer of Tata Sky, says, “Recording content in HD has a high production cost. Which is why not all channels have begun to provide content in HD. The ones that are recorded in a high-resolution camera carries a logo that says it’s an HD channel.”

It is important to remember that when a service provider claims to have hundreds of channels in its HD bouquet what it really means is that the content has been tweaked and upgraded with a technology that simulates a kind of high definition experience. For example, while Reliance’s Big TV has four true HD channels, it also provides about 250 channels in “HD-like-quality”.

One advantage of subscribing to HD is that it allows you to see programmes without those irritating commercial breaks. Barring a few house ads, by and large, the content is ad free. Says Ganesh Ramamoorthy, research director, Gartner, the research firm, “It is possible to watch programmes on HD without any ads as the production houses record the content without any ad breaks.” Confirms Sanjay Gupta COO, Star India Pvt. Ltd, “Currently we are running these channels free of commercials.”

This is not to say, however, that the ad-free scenario will continue forever. As Gupta hastens to clarify, “Our HD channels provide the opportunity advertisers have been waiting for — to craft powerful, inspiring messages using HD as a platform. At this juncture, we are firmly committed to building an eco-system which will help all key stakeholders. We definitely see this as an investment in the future of the broadcast industry.”

Again, while asserting that HD is definitely the way forward for the broadcast industry, and that more and more consumers will demand the enhanced viewing experience that HD offers, almost no one is able to set a timeline as to when the majority of mainstream channels will start recording their content in high definition.

“It is difficult to give any particular time frame by when we can provide more channels on HD,” says Tata Sky’s Mehra. “We will add them as and when we get true HD content.” At present Tata Sky offers six HD channels.

Despite the rather slender HD package available with most service providers right now, if you do want to go high definition, there is a range of options you can choose from.

An HD set top box with a recorder — that allows you to record, pause and rewind programmes — from Tata Sky costs Rs 4,000. Subscribers can also upgrade their existing set top boxes and would be given a buyback offer of Rs 500 for their old box. At present Tata Sky charges an additional Rs 50 for all six HD channels in whatever subscription pack you choose.

Similarly, Dish TV subscribers can upgrade their set top box to a high definition one and get a cash back offer of Rs 400. One could also buy the HD set top box for Rs 2,990 and get two months of a free HD subscription pack, or pay Rs 4,990 and avail of six months’ subscription, or pay Rs 7,990 and get 12 months’ HD subscription free along with it.

As for a Reliance HD set top box, it comes at Rs 2,590. There is a special upgrade discount of Rs 500 for existing subscribers. Airtel’s HD set top boxes with recorders come at Rs 4,490, though existing customers need pay only Rs 3,990. “The price for a regular HD set top box is Rs 3,090 which is available at Rs 2,250 to existing customers,” says Sugato Banerji, chief marketing officer, Airtel digital TV.

Some consumers who have tried HD have not been entirely happy with it. Supratim Roy, a Hyderabad-based marketing consultant, had got a free HD connection when he bought an HD TV. “However, I surrendered the connection a couple of months back as I was getting only three HD channels and it was simply not worth my while to pay the higher subscription price for this,” he says. Roy goes on to add that he would opt for high definition again as and when more channels become available in the new technology.

Indeed, with the rise in sales of LCD and high definition television sets, it is just a matter of time before more and more people want HD content on their television. As Gupta of Star points out, “If anything has hampered its widespread adoption, it is the lack of popular content available in this format.”

That may change soon. Until it does, however, you will have to be content to see just a handful of channels in glorious high definition.

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