HDTV in Germany

Hi-Def TV Only via Cable or Satellite

Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the USA were the world leaders in high-definition television. Europe lagged behind. Germany, Europe’s largest TV market, was slow to start HDTV broadcasts, falling behind even Austria and Switzerland.

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This German political talk show roundtable discussion on ZDF was broadcast in HD. PHOTO: ZDF

Germany began its conversion to digital television (DVB-T) in 2003, much earlier than the USA. That’s an essential step for HDTV, so you’d think that Germany also would have been one of the first countries to introduce hi-def TV broadcasts, but you would be wrong! In fact, the much smaller countries of Austria and Switzerland beat Germany in HDTV. While Germany’s public broadcasters, ARD and ZDF, didn’t broadcast in HD until August 2009 (for the IAAF World Championship athletic games in Berlin), Austrian and Swiss TV broadcast HD for the 2008 World Cup Games.
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No over-the-air HDTV!
But don’t think that means you can watch HDTV using an antenna! In Germany, the only way to receive and watch HD programming is via digital satellite or cable. Although there are many over-the-air digital TV (DVB-T) channels in standard definition in most larger German cities, not one of them is HD. Over-the-air HD programming is set for the future, but such HD projections and predictions have been notoriously unreliable.

ARD and ZDF have gradually increased their HD programming (via cable or satellite). But there are still areas of Germany where the cable system does not carry HD channels! The German private TV broadcasters (RTL, ProSieben, etc.) have gone with 1080i HD, and by 2012 they were offering a lot more HD programming – for a fee. Regular HDTV broadcasting by ARD and ZDF only began with the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, but no over-the-air HDTV is planned any time soon. Which is odd when you realize that the German cable operators have fought with ARD and ZDF over carrying HDTV!

See a list of HDTV channels available via cable or satellite in Germany below.

What’s the problem?
German (and European) TV viewers were suffering from a chicken-and-the-egg problem. Broadcasters didn’t want to spend money on HDTV that no one can watch. Viewers didn’t want to buy an HDTV set they couldn’t use. European governments were slow to solve that problem by forcing TV broadcasters to move to HDTV, in the same way they once helped promote the shift to color television.

Another possible reason for the slow adoption of HDTV in Germany and Europe is the fact that the standard PAL TV picture always had more lines of resolution than NTSC in the US (and in Japan, Mexico, and some other countries). For Americans, the jump from a TV picture with 480 lines (NTSC) to 1080 lines for HDTV is much more apparent than going from 576 lines (PAL) in Germany. Still, full 1080 HD has five times the resolution (2 megapixels) of the standard digital TV picture (0.4 megapixels) in Germany! But amazingly, ARD and ZDF, Germany’s public broadcasters, opted to go with the lowest international standard for HDTV: 720p.

Mostly for cost reasons, German TV viewers have to settle for 720p (the same as ABC in the US) rather than 1080i or 1080p HDTV. (If you find these numbers confusing, see our HD glossary below.) ARD and ZDF justify their choice of 720p HDTV by claiming it is better for sports with fast-moving images. Critics counter with the inferiority of the 720p standard and the fact that newer 1080i/1080p displays can increase the frame rate to 100 or 120 Hz (or more), reducing blur. For movies and most TV shows, the 1080i/p HD picture is far superior to 720p. But many other public broadcasters in European countries are also adopting 720p, mostly to save money. Commercial channels and pay-TV services via cable and satellite usually offer a better 1080i picture. Blu-ray discs are 1080p. Consumers can easily compare the sharper Blu-ray image with a 720p TV image.

Continued below…
HDTV Glossary

  • 16:9: The aspect ratio found in the HD widescreen TV picture. The old standard (SD) aspect ratio is 4:3, but PALplus (wide SD) is 16:9.
  • 720p / 1080p: An HDTV picture with 720 lines (1280 x 720 pixels) or 1080 lines (1920 x 1080 pixels), scanned progressively, not interlaced
  • 720p50 / 1080p60: As above, but adding the frame rate of 50 or 60 full pictures per second.
  • 1080i: An HDTV picture with 1080 interlaced lines, not scanned progressively
  • ATSC: The Advanced Television Systems Committee developed the new US digital TV standard that has replaced the old analog NTSC color TV standard. ATSC is also used in Canada and Mexico.
  • Blu-ray™: An optical disc system that displays movies or games in 1080p HD.
  • DVB: Digital Video Broadcasting is the European standard first implemented in 1998 (in the UK). DVB replaces the old analog PAL and SECAM TV standards used in many countries around the globe.
  • HDTV: High-definition television, with a minimum of 720 progressively scanned lines (720p).
  • MPEG-4 AVC: Moving Pictures Expert Group, Standard 4 Advanced Video Coding is an advanced version of MPEG-2 video compression used for HDTV.
  • NTSC: The old US analog color TV standard, with a 480i picture. Now replaced by ATSC.
  • PAL: Phase Alternating Lines – The old German analog TV standard, with a 576i picture. See Germany’s PAL TV for more.


The following German TV channels offer HD programming (with HD type):
3sat HD (720p), Anixe HD (1080i), ARD (Das Erste) HD (720p), Arte HD (720p), BR Süd HD (720p), BR Nord HD (720p), EinsFestival HD (720p), KiKa HD (720p), NDR NS HD (720p), Phoenix HD (720p), QVC HD (1080i), Servus TV HD (1080i), SWR BW HD (720p), SWR RP HD (720p), WDR HD (720p), ZDF HD (720p), ZDFinfo HD (720p), ZDF Neo HD (720p), ZDF Kultur HD (720p). All except ARD, Arte and ZDF require a paid HD package.

In addition, there are many English-language and German premium channels, including Discovery HD, ESPN America HD, History HD, RTL HD, N24, Sat 1 HD, Sky Cinema HD, Sky Sport HD and Vox HD – all in 1080i. HDTV channels from Austria and Switzerland are also available as an option (in 720p). Some HD channels are only available via the Astra and Hotbird satellites (not cable). Although CNN International HD is available in the US and Japan, CNN was only in SD in Germany and Europe until September 2013, when some cable/sat providers began offering CNN International in HD – if you have an HD package. See the web links below for more information about HD channels.

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