At a press conference at its Toronto
head office on October 22, Bell ExpressVu ceremoniously threw the
switch on what it called the first commercial HDTV broadcast ever
made in Canada. Officially, the purpose of the press conference was
to announce Bell ExpressVu's pay-per-view service, called "VU!". But
early in the proceedings, company president Michael Neuman made it
clear he wanted to talk about high-def.
He compared the slow rollout of high-definition
digital TV in Canada to the early days of broadcast television, when
people would huddle around store windows to watch moving images in
a box. But because there was so little programming, people were reluctant
to purchase the hardware. "We've decided to break that chicken-and-egg
syndrome," Neuman said.
The first ExpressVu HD broadcast was
a picture-postcard scenery program supplied by Sony. The company did
not announce what might be included in future programming, but said
it could include HD programming, such as ABC's Monday Night Football,
picked up from U.S. digital stations.
Bell ExpressVu will broadcast one high-def
program per month from the Nimiq high-powered satellite. If "people
embrace HDTV," Bell ExpressVu might increase the amount of HD programming
it offers, Neuman said.
In early 2000, the company will roll
out satellite receivers with special high-def adapters to consumers.
An integrated high-def satellite receiver will follow later in the
year "as consumer demand develops." While the HD service will be part
of the VU! PPV offering, Bell ExpressVu will not charge for the first
12 HD programs.
Initially, high-def programming will
be intended for demonstration at a limited number of Bell ExpressVu
dealers, which will be rotated month to month. The November broadcast
(exact date TBA, but probably the third or fourth Saturday) will be
shown at Kromer Radio in Toronto and La Boutique in Montreal.
Bell ExpressVu's PPV service, consisting
of 50 different services on 30 channels, will be launched on October
28. VU! will offer more flexible purchase arrangements than cable-company
PPV services, Neuman said. Instead of just pay-per-program plans,
VU! will offer pay-per-day, pay-per-month, pay-per-year or, in with
NHL Centre Ice, pay-per-season. Centre Ice will carry 800 games from
the 1999-2000 season. The Racing Network, which includes live race
coverage and betting-odds information, will sell for $24.99 per month.
PPV movies will be offered on a pay-per-day
basis, so that viewers can pause a movie, and come back to it at a
later time. Most will be shown in what Bell ExpressVu calls "Super
Definition TV," which is in fact, standard-definition 480i digital
TV. "Super Definition" offers the best picture quality available on
a regular NTSC set, noted Terry Snazel, vice-president technology
for ExpressVu. Not only does the company use a high bit rate for "Super
Definition," this material shown is never squeezed into composite
form. Chrominance and luminance stay separated throughout. So these
pictures won't be affected by NTSC artifacts like dot crawl, as long
as the receiver is connected to the TV via an S-connection.
Bell ExpressVu also announced a 24-per-hour
PPV pornography service, called Venus. Venus will be a "cutting-edge"
service, said Neumann. "There's more of it, and all the time," he
said. Pornography channels on cable don't start operating until 11:00
p.m., Neuman noted. "Cable companies won't let you have this when
you want it."
In an interview following the Bell
ExpressVu press conference, Bruce Barr, senior vice-president of Star
Choice Residential Services, took issue with ExpressVu's claims to
be the first to broadcast Canadian service to broadcast in high-definition.
"We did it last April," he said. As Bell ExpressVu's "commercial"
qualifier, Barr noted the type of programming and limited reach of
He said Star Choice's high-definition
offering would be far stronger than Bell ExpressVu's. Star Choice
will launch a full-time, 7/24 HD channel of HD programming starting
on October 26. In prime-time, programming will be a "best-of" selection
of the HD programming from U.S. broadcast networks. Barr said this
would likely include Monday Night Football and the Super Bowl. In
daytime, Star Choice will probably broadcast a high-def program loop
on its HD channel.
The HD service will be part of Star
Choice's basic tier. Star Choice will receive its first shipment of
HD decoders in mid-November. These will not be cheap. Last summer,
Barr said the decoders would probably sell for $400 to $500. Now,
on the eve of the company's HD launch, he says the first decoders
will retail for $1,499. That's a function of limited production quantities,
Star Choice will broadcast all high-def
programming in 1080i (material that originates in 720p will be converted
to 1080i). Bell ExpressVu, by contrast, will broadcast material in
its native format. The latter approach is obviously preferable. Not
only does it respect the technical and artistic decisions made by
program originators, it avoids conversion artifacts that might compromise
picture quality. That said, virtually all current consumer high-definition
televisions (Panasonic's PT-56WXF95 is one exception) display in 1080i,
and convert 720p material to 1080i. So in most cases, Star Choice
is doing what the set itself would do anyway.