ABU DHABI // High-definition television (HDTV) is being launched in the UAE, marking the first time pay-TV customers will be offered the service in the Middle East. Etisalat yesterday announced it was making its HDTV products available through its cable television service immediately.
Initially, the company will offer five channels in high definition, including Al Jazeera Sports, Showtime, Abu Dhabi TV and Fashion TV. Etisalat's cable service, E-Vision, reaches about 70 per cent of UAE households, and accounts for more than half the country's pay-TV subscriptions with more than one million viewers. Humaid Sahoo, E-Vision's chief executive, said the company was aiming for the HDTV service to be taken up by 30 per cent of cable subscribers.
He acknowledged however that many customers would probably want more channels to be available in high definition before subscribing to the new service, which will cost an extra Dh30 a month on top of existing cable bills. They will also have to purchase a HDTV receiver for almost Dh1,000 (US$270). "If we have the content, it is achievable," he said. "Finding the content was hard, and we were ready for HD two and a half years back. But somebody just has to do it, everyone was waiting. So we said 'lets launch it'. High definition is the future of TV."
HDTV broadcasts sound and images in much higher quality than most television viewers are used to. Experts say the images are almost as good as Blu-ray optical discs, the current gold standard for recordable discs used for films and other types of programming, and much clearer than DVDs. A compatible television is needed to view HD content, but most flat-panel televisions on the market can support the standard.
Etisalat estimates there are more than 600,000 high definition televisions already in use in the UAE. Shopping for a new television at the Lulu hypermarket at the Al Wahda Mall in Abu Dhabi, Ali al Hammadi, a 24-year-old Emirati engineer, said he was on the lookout for one with HD compatibility. "The one I want is high definition," he said. "It's better and more useful because it gives you high quality.
"You can see the difference if you put the HD against the normal TV. I prefer it also when I go to a coffee shop, to watch something with the clearest quality. I'm an engineer, so I prefer something with quality." Nabab KM, a television salesman at the hypermarket, said the shift to high-definition programming would let customers, who are already showing a strong preference for large, flat-screen sets capable of viewing HD content, take full advantage of their purchases.
"Normal channels on a big LCD are not good," he said, adding that a screen "bigger than 37 inch is not good for normal TV". Currently, the only way to get the most out of a large flat-screen television is to connect it to a Blu-ray disc player, or to use it with a gaming console such as Microsoft's Xbox 360 or Sony's PlayStation 3, both of which can produce HD-quality output. Both Showtime and Abu Dhabi TV also plan to make their high-definition channels available as stand-alone services.
Showtime HD will become a part of the company's pay-TV system, while Abu Dhabi TV plans to be broadcast its HD service via satellite, much like the network's other channels. Showtime said its new channel would include three English Premier League football matches each week, plus television shows such as Lost, 24 and Prison Break, all shown in HD. Abu Dhabi TV, owned by Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADMC), publishers of The National, has been filming sport and other events in high definition for the past year.
While it has yet to broadcast in the format, the footage will make up a bank of content for the new channel. So too will documentaries produced by the National Geographic channel, which has a partnership with ADMC. The channel already plans to broadcast the UAE's Pro League in HD, and potentially English Premier League football - for which ADMC recently won the exclusive Middle Eastern broadcast rights beginning in late 2010 - as well.
But ADMC's chief executive, Edward Borgerding, said HDTV broadcast rights still needed to be negotiated for the Premier League matches. "It is a little too early for us to decide how to go about that," he said. "We have to look at the economics of it, and the feed that the English Premier League gives us. "As you go through the details of these types of contract there is a lot of nitty-gritty."