HDTV in Germany

Finally, in 2017, Over-the-Air Hi-Def TV Comes to Germany

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.

ARD Tagesschau HD

The nightly German “Tagesschau” news broadcast in HD. PHOTO: ARD

Germany began its conversion to digital television (DVB) in 2003. That’s an essential step for digital 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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HDTV via an Antenna
But until recently, you couldn’t watch HDTV using an antenna! In Germany, the only way to receive and watch HD programming was via digital satellite or cable. Although there were many over-the-air digital TV (DVB-T) channels in standard definition in most larger German cities, not one of them was in HD. Finally, in March 2016, selected parts of Germany were able to watch over-the-air HD programming – if they had the right equipment. This test phase in some large metropolitan areas of Germany converts to a nationwide digital HDTV standard (DVB-T2) by mid-2019. Many areas will have full-HD in 2017, but they may have to buy a new TV set or a converter box.

Since most Germans watch TV via cable or satellite, that isn’t a large problem, but those who currently watch terrestrial, standard-defintion (SD) TV will have a problem when the new system’s test phase is over. The new over-the-air digital HDTV technology is not compatible with the old digital SD standard. Not only that, when terrestrial HDTV goes full-time in Germany, the old SD over-the-air signal will go dark. The German government has reduced the amount of broadcast spectrum available for television, meaning that German TV broadcasters, public and private, can no longer broadcast both SD and HD television over the air. Cable, satellite, or streaming TV viewers are not affected by the new DVB-T2 changes.

DVB-T2 logo

Look for this green sticker on new TV sets that have DVB-T2 HD built in.
IMAGE: freenet.tv

But wait, there’s more! Another zinger in Germany’s new terrestrial HDTV move: Only ARD, ZDF, and the regional public broadcasters (öffentlich-rechtliche) can be viewed via an antenna for free! To watch the private broadcasters (RTL, ProSieben, Vox, Sat.1) over the air, viewers have to pay an annual €69 fee (€5.75/mo) to freenet.tv for a decoder chip or a set-top-box. That’s because the terrestrial digital signal from the private Sender is scrambled. So “free” over-the-air TV in Germany is now only partly free. And you still have to pay for the so-called “free” public channels through the Rundfunkbeitrag that every household in Germany has to pay. Find out more online at the ironically named www.freenet.tv site.

When you shop for your new digital HDTV set in order to watch the new DVB-T2 broadcasts via an antenna, look for the special green logo (see above) that identifies DVB-T2-HD-compatible TV equipment. If you don’t have a DVB-T2 HD television set, you can get a converter box for your existing TV monitor. If you watch German TV via cable or satellite, nothing changes.

HDTV in Germany Today
ARD and ZDF have increased their HD programming over the years. Most TV in Germany is now HD. But there are still a few 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.

What was the problem?
German (and European) TV viewers suffered from a chicken-and-the-egg problem. Broadcasters didn’t want to spend money on HDTV that no one could 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 likely 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 old 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 Tech Glossary

  • 4K Ultra HD: Also called UHD, a 4K video display is one with at least 8 million active pixels. For television, that resolution is standardized as 3840 x 2160 pixels. Normal full-HD (1080p) is 1920 x 1080 pixels. Digital cinema 4K (used in 4K movie theaters) is slightly higher: 4096 x 2160. The HDMI 2.0 standard was developed to support 4K, and allows 2160p video to be displayed at 50/60 frames per second.
  • 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: An HDTV picture with 720 lines (1280 x 720 pixels), scanned progressively, not interlaced.
  • 1080i: An HDTV picture with 1080 interlaced lines, not scanned progressively
  • 1080p: An HDTV picture with 1080 lines (1920 x 1080 pixels), scanned progressively, not interlaced. Also called full-HD; Germany’s new DVB-T2 over-the-air TV standard is 1080p
  • 720p50 / 1080p60: As above, but adding the frame rate of 50 or 60 full pictures per second.
  • 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 digital TV 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. There are several different DVB standards: DVB-C (cable), DVB-S (satellite), and DVB-T (terrestrial). It is the most widely used TV standard in the world (Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, Russia, Greenland).
  • DVB-T2: Digital Video Broadcasting – Terrestrial, 2nd generation. First tested in Germany in March 2016, this new TV standard allows HD over-the-air TV. It replaces the old DVB-T standard.
  • HDTV: High-definition television, with a minimum of 720 progressively scanned lines (720p).
  • HDMI: High-Definition Multimedia Interface – A proprietary audio/video interface (cable) for transmitting uncompressed video data and compressed or uncompressed digital audio data from an HDMI-compliant source device to a digital TV monitor, video projector, or other digital device. The HDMI 2.0 standard, introduced in September 2013, was developed to support 4K video devices.
  • 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 HD (720p), Arte HD (720p), BR Süd HD (720p), BR Nord HD (720p), EinsFestival HD (720p), HR HD (720p), KiKa HD (720p), NDR NS HD (720p), Phoenix HD (720p), QVC HD (1080i), rbb HD (720p), 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, ZDF, and the local “third channels” 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). 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 subscription. See the web links below for more information about HD channels.

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