The BBC's head of HD on the importance of widening the availability of free-to-air high definition content.

The BBC made a smart move when it appointed Seetha Kumar as head of HD. A more obvious choice for an executive to spearhead the launch of HD might have been a BBC marketer or policy wonk, adept at guiding the corporation's nascent HD launches through the maze of Ofcom consultations and BBC Trust inquiries.

However, Kumar's strength was her programme-making background. “By appointing somebody like myself they had a person who thought about programming from day one,” she says of her recruitment in November 2005.

It illustrates just how much the debate about HD has changed over the past couple of years. “When I went to conferences in the early days, people always talked about technology. Now they just talk about the need for content,” she declares.

But the fact that the BBC opted for a journalist and programme-maker is recognition that her role is more than simply arguing the case for HD in the corridors of power. Winning the battle for HD broadcasting also requires winning the hearts and minds of programme-makers at the sharp end of production where Kumar started her BBC career.

Some background

A former print journalist for Indian financial broadsheet Financial Express and Business World magazine, Kumar's UK media career began in the indie sector as a documentary-maker before a move to the BBC.

In 2004, she was made the BBC's head of life skills, commissioning programming initiatives such as Hitting Home on domestic violence, the Taking Care season about children in care and well-regarded observational series on surgeons Your Life in Their Hands.

The grassroots promotion of HD among programme-makers is something that Kumar takes very seriously. And rightly so because producers are the people she needs to convince if the corporation is to honour its promise to make all its programmes in HD by 2010.

As the end of the decade looms, the reality of the BBC hitting its HD production target is looking slim. With HD programming costing between 10% to 20% more to make depending on the genre, the BBC's disappointing licence fee settlement can scarcely have made the economics of HD production any easier.

Kumar claims that rather than a hard-and-fast target, the aim to move to total HD production by 2010 is more of an aspiration. “We're working through a clear production migration strategy. Does it matter if it happens in 2010 or 2011? - I don't think so.”

Decent percentage

Current estimates are that the BBC makes 15% of its shows (excluding news) in HD. The strategy is still to cherry-pick landmark shows such as Cranford and Earth: The Power of the Planet to inspire producers about the medium's potential.

One part of Kumar's job is to explain the mysteries of the high-quality format. “We share knowledge, talk about costs and how to get the best out of HD across the BBC with masterclasses and HD awareness days.”

Awareness of HD has certainly shot up over the past year, helped by a series of announcements including Ofcom's approval of HD channels on DTT. There followed the joint announcement by the UK terrestrial channels that they would deliver an HD service by 2012 and the BBC's launch of the UK's first free-to-air HD channel on satellite and cable in December.

“One of the best things has been announcements by ITV and Channel 4 - which had a very different stance a year ago - about how important HD is,” declares Kumar. “This means more programming will be made in HD, prices will come down and this will result in a waterfall of HD programming.” “When we have asked what viewers want the answer is clear - they want more HD programming.”

While it's fair to say that pay TV on satellite has made most of the running in HD to date, with Sky clocking up 358,000 HD subs, Kumar insists that in time Freeview will make an increasingly important contribution to HD viewing.

Pent-up demand

She bases her assertion on Freeview research which found pent-up demand for a free HD service. “We found that 98% of those who have HD-ready TVs stated that it was important to have HD services on Freeview, with 86% expecting to see these services within three years.

The research also revealed that 90% of HD-ready triallists believed that the BBC, ITV, C4 and Five should be at the forefront of HD developments and that there should be at least six or seven channels of HD content. Freeview viewers represent the heartland of the switchover audience and it's clear they expect to receive HD and they expect it to be free.”

This year Kumar has two important diary dates. There's the results of Ofcom's latest consultation on the future of DTT, including plans for HD channels, which closes at the end of January. The eagerly awaited launch of BBC and ITV's Freesat service, which will include an HD channel, follows in the spring.

Kumar points to a welcome change of heart over the significance of HD on Freeview in regulatory circles. Initially the regulator was reluctant to make a special case for HD broadcasting by setting aside spectrum for HD channels. Its latest proposals suggest the use of MPEG-4 compression technology, the introduction of DVB-T2 transmission standards and the reorganisation of DTT multiplexes to make room for a three or four channel HD service at switchover.

“A year ago, when we announced the results of DTT trials, Ofcom said HD was not important or critical. Now it recognises its importance,” says Kumar. “It's all about giving the DTT platform a longer life and making it more efficient. Initially, growth has come via pay. Now we need to make it more widely available and to allow it to grow and for that you need free-to-air HD to work.”

Seetha Kumar fact file:
Born: Bombay (Mumbai)
School/Education: Convent of Jesus and Mary (New Delhi); Jawaharlal Nehru University
First TV job: Researcher, production company
Career high: Yet to come
Greatest challenge: Making the transition from print media in India to British TV

Want to find out more?
Broadcast Live and Video Forum
Wednesday 10:30 to 11:30 - HDTV panel session: 'The HD switchover'
Seetha Kumar will discuss the prospects for the evolution of HDTV in the UK, including DTT.