I'm just back from the Sky HDi launch: Sky HDi being the HD-capable digital video recorder that will enable Sky subscribers to receive the HD broadcasts -- sport, movies and the handful of programmes Sky produces itself -- which will commence next month.
The box itself is identical to the one launched by FoxTel in Australia, with three tuners and an Ethernet port which, according to Sky CEO John Fellet, will become relevant when Sky launches IPTV services in about a year's time.
The HD programming, in 1080i format, will be on Sky Sport 1 and 2, Sky Movies, Sky Movie Greats and, yes TV3. Where possible, sound will be Dolby 5.1, even on the sports broadcasts. Fellet said in his short speech that Sky is "in dialogue with all the other broadcasters" about carrying their services in HD. But more of that later.
Kevin Cameron outlined the sports offerings, which will be the first to aunch. Sky will broadcast 104 sports events in HD this year, including local rugby and NRL matches, the US Open, the US and European gold tours and Premier League football.
He also outlined Sky's plans for the 2010 Winter Olympics and 2012 Olympics in London. They're huge. Sky will have eight dedicated Olympic channels, plus 12 hours a day "free to air" on Prime. There will be online and mobile content too. He quoted a total of 3638 hours coverage of the London games, contrasting that with the 810 hours TVNZ provides from Beijing.
On Site Broadcasting has spent what I assume to be an eye-watering sum on a new HD-enabled OB truck (also present at the launch), with two more of those to be commissioned later.
The movie channels look to have quite a stock of library titles newly rendered into HD, including Blade Runner: The Final Cut and Gladiator. Given the paucity of titles available for Blu-Ray, this is quite a useful offering.
Existing MySky users will pay a $49 swap-out fee. Running the HD box will cost an extra $10 a month, but that fee will be waived for customers to elect to keep their current box as an additional household decoder.
It's a pretty solid offering, and builds on the usability advantage Sky has with MySky.
But back to that "free to air" Olympic coverage on Prime: I asked Fellet what free-to-air HD platform Prime will be on in 2010.
"It will definitely be on Sky," he said.
So Sky is a free-to-air platform?
Well, in the sense that it will be possible to buy from Sky a decoder that receives on the free-to-air channels. About 5000 people have one of those at present, although obviously they're not HD. Frankly, Sky knows that's not truly a free-to-air solution, especially given that most new TV sets sold between now and then will include a built-in Freeview HD tuner.
The reality is that by 2010, Prime will be on Freeview, which is what free-to-air TV will be in the relatively near future. Sky knows it, Freeview knows it and the current free-to-air broadcasters know it. And they will hammer out the details at the same time as Sky renegotiates its carriage of TV One and TV2. It is possible that regulation might be required -- perhaps a "must carry" rule that regulates the price Sky pays for publicly-funded TV -- but hopefully not. Even as both sides shout the odds in public, they will be negotiating on a more measured level in private. For now at least, they should be left to haggle.
PS: Grant McDougall and Kyle Matthews are organising a meet-up for Dunedin Public Address readers. We never got a Great Blend down south and given y schedule this year we're not likely to, so y'all should take this opportunity to get together, at a bar, probably later this month. I'm unlikely to be able to join you, but I'll try and send down some goodies. If you're interested, you can email Grant at email@example.com or call him on (03) 477-0837. If you can reach him, Kyle's mobile number is 021-113-0236. Have fun!