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Why do less than one in five people with an HD set watch in HD?

Research has shown that after over a decade of high definition television (HDTV) broadcasts, only 17% of people watch high definition TV channels. This is when three-quarters of UK homes has an HDTV as their main TV set. Why is this?

Did you pay good money for a TV and then never use it at it's best?  Photograph: unknown
Did you pay good money for a TV and then never use it at it's best? Photograph: unknown
published on UK Free TV

I have given some thought and I’ve come up with four main reasons:

  • Not everyone has a HD receiver;
  • It’s hard to find the channels in the programme guide;
  • Not all shows look that much better in HD
  • Eyesight is less good at the age where people watch lots of television

What do you think?


Reason 1: Not everyone has an HD receiver.

UK TV first started receiving Sky HD broadcasts in May 2006, Freesat HD in 2008 and finally Freeview HD in 2010.   The digital switchover brought free HD to all homes in the UK by the end of October 2012.

However, for several years, HD television sets had the words “HD ready” on them.   This means that the sets required an additional set-top box to get Freeview HD.  Or, they could use a Sky+ HD subscription box or Freesat HD receiver. 

That’s why in 2017, 77% of homes have an HD “ready” TV set as their main screen [1], but only 82% of those sets can watch a live HD service. [3]


Reason 2: It is a pain to find HD content as they are far away in the EPG

For the people who have the equipment to be able to watch in HD, it can still be very difficult to find the channels broadcast in HD.

Basically, this means you can’t surf the channel guide without making a very special effort to use the HD channels.    

The logical place to find an HD channel would be as in place replacement, but only the HD satellite services do these simple swaps.  So, the upshot is that even with the satellite swaps STILL only a third of BBC Two viewers watch in HD!  

This diagram illustrates the logic of HD channel numbers by showing their numeric distance to move from normal, standard definition (SD) to HD. 


How do we know this is an issue for lots of viewers?

However, what is very interesting is that the share of viewers using the HD services for viewing the main free-to-air, public service channels (which get 51% of total viewing) is [5]:

Why are the figures so low?    It’s because on all Freeview sets, the HD channel numbers are not swapped with the single figures everyone knows, so you must know to add 100, 96, 97, 3 or even minus 124 to get the same PSB channel in HD.

It’s a little better on Sky HD and Freesat HD where you get in-place HD swaps for Channel 5 and in England BBC Two HD, outside England BBC One HD and STV or UTV.    And you don’t need to hunt for the other HD BBC channels: CBBC, CBeebies and the news channel.


Will this problem ever be fixed?

Perhaps in hindsight it should have been the law for HD channels to be swapped into the EPG in the right place and for the broadcasters to provide regional news and adverts in HD for everyone? 

There are good technical and money reasons for this: the regional news on BBC One costs a fortune to provide but there’s no budget to broadcast them all in HD on satellite; Channel 4 and ITV are paid for by advertisers who paid for the regionalization of adverts.

This situation may improve when Freeview eventually becomes a “HD first” service, which might be in 2022 perhaps? 

So, making the total for HD viewing for these “big five” grow from 12% 2014 to 17% in 2016.    If you draw a line, it would make current final changeover date to all-HD …  2099.


Reason 2b: And your TV salesman isn’t going to explain this to you…

Understandably, TV sellers want to show their merchandise at its very best. And the best way to do this is by showing specially made, extremely high-quality videos.  Not by showing reruns of East Enders.  That means you don’t get to see how to set up HD channels when you get the TV home. And it would be a very dedicated salesman who had the time to show you.

Have a visit to your local TV store and you’ll see this in practice.   This week I checked out my local Curry’s PC World.  Curry’s was using their old favourite of blockbuster 3D animated movies, which always look good on any screen.


Reason 3: Not all shows look that much better in HD

If you have a relatively new TV, you probably won’t be too bothered about finding those HD channels. Your favourite shows will look just great even on the normal channels.

There are TV programme genres that do really benefit from being watched in HD, especially nature documentaries and live stadium sport.  But a lot of what people watch is news, soap operas and quiz shows. While these shows will look better in HD, the difference isn’t that great on modern TV sets.


Reason 3b: Shows made before 2009 were never made in HD

And you’re probably still watching a lot of reruns that were never made in HD anyway.

TV channels that show archive programmes (Drama, E4, Dave, ITV 3) or US imports (Pick, 5 USA) are incredibly popular among UK viewers. And these shows won’t have been produced in HD if they were made before 2009.  



Reason 4: Eyesight is less good at the age where people watch lots of television

Forgive me for pointing this out, but for many of us we just can’t see the benefit of HD television. If, like me, you’re getting near middle aged, you’ll know all too well that eyesight declines with age.   This is shown here on this chart.



And, its mostly people over 65 who watch a great deal of broadcast TV. Younger viewers prefer to use streaming services (Netflix, YouTube, etc.). And this trend is growing. [4]


Isn’t it ironic that the people who are watching the most broadcast TV get the least benefit from HD?






[3] page 79




[5] page 78

Help with High Definition?
Whenever i watch moving sport especially football I experience much poorer pictu1
In this section
Freeview removes com8 channels 1
20 Freeview HD TV channels to close March/June 2019 in Cornwall2
Channel 4 abandons Freesat HD in TWO DAYS3
Five tips for when you are buying a new TV to watch Freeview or Freesat4
All five public service channels now free to air!5
Will we ever have Freeview Ultra HD or Freesat Ultra HD?6

Sunday, 15 October 2017
8:00 PM

If Regional programmes cost so much why do they have some many presenters?
Look East has one do the first 15 mins ( covering the west of the region) and it's fine. Then they go over to the east part of the region for the rest with 2 presenters who say two lines each and ,giggle a lot together. Plaus there is a separate weather person and all the outside reporters. All for a 30 min show!

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mal's 4 posts GB flag

9:55 PM

mal: It's not really the number of presenters that cost so much, it's the necessity of having lots of people working to produce the show, and the necessary overheads of having an office and a studio and all the relevant equipment!

The costs also stem from having to cover the whole of the UK in the level of detailed required. That's totally separate shows for Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, and 14 divisions of England.

BBC nations and regions - overview map

There are a number of money-saving oddities like the Look East "split" where the local teams for the Cambridge part take over for a while. Something similar goes on in the Channel Islands and Oxfordshire.

So, in summary, the regional news "presenters" are local news journalists and they are expected to present the latest news to viewers live.

From memory, most viewers like the developed presentation style.

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Briantist's 38,915 posts GB flag

10:04 PM

mal: It's worth remembering that BBC One is on air 24 hours a day, but just between 6:30pm and 7pm, it outputs a whole 9 hours of content!

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Briantist's 38,915 posts GB flag
Alan Hyatt
10:29 PM

ITV HD just pixilates in SY6 and of course we have to change from HD to SD for local news so why bother. After all as we get older we recognise how much rubbish is on there & are looking for quality programmes
(Blue Planet) now that gets me changing to H. D. Hysterics on EastEnders or C. St just don't do it thank god for BBC ch 4

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Alan Hyatt's 3 posts GB flag

11:15 PM

Briantist: Firstly, I'm delighted to see you back with more articles - its been great that you've kept the site going at all, but with so many changes in the media world, its good to see your articles again.

OK, so why do people not watch more TV in HD? I've sold TV's and other equipment for almost a decade now, so these are the reasons I would put forward:

1) Habit and placing on the EPG.

The second point in the article is right - you might have to search around for HD channels, which are usually to be found in the 100's. TV's automatically default to BBC1 as the first channel on the EPG, and people have used 1 since the time of the dinosaurs, so 1 rather than 101 is the channel most people will still automatically go to.

Most people dont tend to bother rearranging their EPG - they dont have a clue how to, so instinct tends to rule. We are creatures of habit, and its takes a long time for people to get out of it.

I had a couple yesterday who'd bought a new 40in 4K set, but said they could only get a picture with black bars on it. I eventually worked out that they had been using their old SD Humax box for so long, that although they set up the TV/box correctly, they hadn't actually used the TV's internal tuner at all - they were still watching the set through the very old Humax box, which was messing up the aspect ratios.

Once the DVT-T2 switchover happens, then that problem will go.

2) Not everyone has an HD tuner.
The UK had the highest penetration of flat screen TV's in Europe years ago, and frankly, a lot of people havn't upgraded the tuner (I had two customers in the past two weeks still using old CRT's). They are pretty cheap, but again, people are creatures of habit, some strangely think that have an HD panel means an HD picture (no), and sometimes, even if they do have an HD tuner, they dont actually use it.

I remember a young couple who said they had Sky HD, but the picture wasn't very good. I asked them which cable they were using to connect their current TV (they were buying a new one anyway). They looked at the back of the dept's then Sky box, and pointed at the scart socket....

And until recently, a lot of cheap TV's could be sold as HD, while not mentioning the lack of an HD tuner. The four big brands had the bulk of their sets (although not all, there was an LG just last year...) with an HD tuner pretty soon after digital switchover. I still get customers asking if a TV has Freeview built in, so they might not even be aware that a TV really should have an HD tuner.

Older people certainly are less likely to use HD - my father watches a great deal of TV, but will happily watch everything in SD, even though the TV has an HD tuner - pure habit (he also watches something called 'Keep it Country', which is in SD anyway).

3) People stick to what they know, and certain myths tend to be difficult to dislodge.

In our store, we show most TV's in HD, (even though they are mostly 4K) simply because that a realistic picture to show customers for when they get home (we are not Currys). 8 years ago, we showed them on SD on our HD sets, for much the same reason. Curry's do like to show lovely 4K demos (that ones a 4K Sony one for the OLED, which looks lovely - its not a 3D demo), but even when putting HD on (which we can all get from our aerials), I still get people who say that you can't see the difference between SD and HD.

This is nonsense - you can, and we flick over one of the 32in sets to the SD channel of what we are showing on all of them, and the difference is clear. But people still dont always believe you. In much the same way as people used to argue that there was no point in HD under 40in, 'because you can't see the difference' (you can, trust me), there is an article I spotted the other day saying the same thing about 4K (again, yes, you can).

And HD is much better if your vision is worse - there is simply a lot more data on the screen - I'm 50 and watching HD is much better. Put it this way, I'm still stunned that walking into any HMV, the bulk of boxsets for NEW shows will be on DVD, so are being bought in SD, even though they were made and broadcast in HD!

So you get an often circular logic - I will stick with SD, because I know where it is, and HD isn't really any better anyway, and I know that because....aaahhh!

4) Programmes are not in HD

True, but only sort of. Programmes on SD channels like 1, 2, ITV etc will often look better than their counterparts 20 years ago simply because they were originally made in ...HD.

So the amount of data that was originally captured is pretty good. Same goes for films - most are now broadcast using blu-ray quality, so even an SD broadcast of 'Where Eagles Dare' on Spike last year looked really good, because they were using an HD version. Same goes for ITV4's SD channels 'Jaws'.

On the other hand, members of my film forum complained at how rubbish 'Hero's of Telmark' looked - its because the studio hasn't bothered yet with an HD version, so they are using an SD picture. Thats not great on SD on a HD panel, but worse still on an HD channel on an HD panel.

Watch an HD presentation on HD, and it will be very good - even though BBC2's versions of 2001, LA Confidential and Ipcress File were all being shown at 1080i, they looked so good that I had to go and get LA Confidential in Blu Ray, just because my DVD version just wasn't up to it.

But even programmes made before 2009 will look better on an HD channel, because they are being upscaled at source, or have access to better sources than were originally broadcast. Watch Dad's Army on BBC2 HD - it will look better than if you watch it on SD DVD (a blu ray with upscaling will be closer, but still). Same goes for Frasier - the C4 HD broadcasts look slightly better than my DVD's with upscaling.

To be honest, I dont think its a rational choice that people make when they dont bother with HD for an older show - its just ingrained habit.

Whats going to change this shortfall? Death and the move to T2 tuners, to be honest.

The reality is that younger viewers are more aware of HD - they are simply less likely to accept SD when they have the choice - and because they are more likely to stream or game, they are much more likely to want to do so in 4K (the Netflix trailer for The Crown is stunning - which isn't surprising, since 4K is the res for a multiplex).

An Xbox One will get you 4K gaming, and I was talking to a customer the other day with a 4K set (middle aged, actually!) who uses Netflix all the time - 50% of what he watches is in 4K.

So as that older generation dies off, that screen res will become the new normal. And with 4K sets the de facto standard now, you will need HD to get a decent picture out of them - SD looks horrible. 4K programmes are already being made, not just for streaming, but for broadcast - Blue Planet 2 (like Planet Earth 2) was made in 4K, and released on 4K discs (you could even stream a 4K clip from Iplayer for Planet Earth).

And once the DVT tuners go, then its potentially HD all the way, and so that will be the broadcast standard - you press 1, and you get HD. Problem solved.

I'm still stunned at the number of people who still go an sit at their desktop, and watch Iplayer on a 17in screen, when they have a smart TV with Iplayer built in, but I recognise that people often do things in the same way they have always done, because thats the way they've done them. Technology can't change human nature.

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MikeB's 2,579 posts GB flag
Monday, 16 October 2017
John Garnham
8:28 AM

The regional pros are the problem. I always watch in HD7, but, my wife switches when I'm out of the room, to watch the local news - it can be hours later that I notice the reduced definition due to her not switching back!
Also, bring the H'S channels forward in the guide - put as default at stations 1 to 6 etc

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John Garnham's 1 post GB flag
11:08 AM

I've got three perfectly serviceable flat screens in sizes from 32" to 51" -all are more than 5 years old - not one of them has a Freeview HD tuner built in - I get HD from the Sky HD box on one set -the others only get used in HD when watching Youtube stuff.
Even with my aged eyesight I can really notice the difference on many channels now eg trying to watch BBC2 Wales in SD is painful!

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dave's 19 posts GB flag
mark harriman
11:18 AM

Our main reason is regional programmes but annoyingly on Freeview we only get Yorkshire regional .
We bought a Freesat TV and now can get our own region. Why cant Freeview viewers select a channel with their preferred regional presentations?

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mark harriman's 11 posts GB flag

11:40 AM

mark harriman:

Quite simple really, Freeview transmitters only radiate the regional programming for the area they are located in.There are a limited number of frequencies available for each transmitter to use and there are so many channels now that it is not possible to have all the regional variations transmitted from all the more than 1000 transmitters. So they are set up to serve the local area only. The same was true in the old 405 line VHF days and in the 625 line UHF analogue days. Going digital allowed more channels to use the available frequencies at each transmitter - but not enough to have every regional channel available from every transmitter. So only the local ones are available. Add to that the fact that UHF signals have a limited range, in normal circumstances, so a large number of transmitters are needed to cover most of the country - and they cannot all share the same frequencies at present. That may change with further developments of the use of DVB-T2 encoding needed for HD transmissions. but the programmes broadcast from the transmitters will still have a local only nature.

On satellite, the usage of the available spectrum is different and as the radiation pattern covers the whole country, and others to some extent, it is necessary for them to carry all the regional variations so the viewer can choose for themselves. Much higher freqnecies are used for satellite broadcasting so it is possible to carry more channels with suitable encoding.

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MikeP's 3,056 posts GB flag

11:58 AM


Another problem not mentioned in your submission, is that HDMI seems to lack the automatic facility to select the required input on the TV if using an external source (I have yet to find any lead that provides that and I'm not certain the TVs are equiped to do that automatically). I have a Freeview HD TV that has both SCART and HDMI inputs. The SCART input uses pin 8 to select the required input when we turn on the Sky HD box - but SCART cannot provide HD viewing. The HDMI system does not automatically select one of the inputs so if I use an HDMI lead we have to manually select an HDMI input - which can be a pain in the ****! Only when HDMI provides the same automation as does SCART will more people use HD.

I totally agree that the channel allocations on Freeview tend to discourage viewers from seing things in HD. Add to that the fact that the current BBC HD services do not carry the 'local' regional services, so we in Wiltshire get London local news! Will that change when the next raond of changes happens? I'm not holding my breath.

When those issues are resolved, it is likely that more people will watch in HD rather than the 'easy' SD.

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MikeP's 3,056 posts GB flag
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