Where’s the HDTV? Germany’s not so sharp.

no HD

“No HD transmissions” is all you can see currently from Germany’s TV broadcasters.

Americans used to watching hi-def TV from the major networks and on cable/satellite channels are surprised when they get to Germany and discover the total lack of over-the-air HDTV and a dearth of HD programming of any kind. Although Europe in general has been slow to get on the HDTV bandwagon, Germany has been bringing up the rear of this parade. Neither the public TV channels (ARD and ZDF) nor the private TV broadcasters in Germany currently offer any regular HD programming of any kind. DirecTV and Dish Network offer over 100 HD channels in the US. Germany’s Sky offers seven (7)!

The pitiful state of HDTV programming in Germany is surprising for several reasons:

  1. Germany is a technology haven that usually leads rather than follows.
  2. Germany is Europe’s largest television market.
  3. Germans are sports nuts. Sporting events are ideal for high definition TV!
  4. Both Austria and Switzerland, much smaller countries, are ahead of Germany in HDTV.
  5. France and the UK, with somewhat smaller TV markets are also ahead of Germany in HDTV.

It was not that long ago that Germany had TV bragging rights over the US. Germany’s PAL TV picture was much sharper than the NTSC image seen on TV screens in the United States. Germans (and other Europeans) were proud of their sharp 576-line TV image that made the 480-line US picture look like a newspaper photo compared to a slick magazine photo. But with the recent move to digital television around the world, including in Germany and the USA, the situation has changed — and changed dramatically!

Germany began phasing in terrestrial digital TV (DVB-T) in 2003. By early 2009, all of Germany had DVB-T, but the German digital TV picture was still in standard definition (SD), just like the old analog PAL TV. Over the six-year digital phase-in period, not one German TV broadcaster offered any HDTV programming. (Sat.1 HD and ProSieben HD offered HD via satellite, but ceased broadcasting in February 2008.)

Although digital HDTV in the US launched in 1998 and has been common in major US TV markets since 2000, it wasn’t until August 2009 that Germany’s ARD and ZDF networks offered their first-ever HD broadcast, with coverage of the IAAF World Championship athletic games in Berlin. The games were produced in 1080i for international broadcast, but German viewers saw only the 720p version — if they could see it at all. Germany’s first HDTV transmission was via satellite only as a simulcast on Das Erste HD and ZDF HD. They also did HD demo transmissions for the 2009 IFA (Internationale Funkausstellung) in Berlin (Sept. 4-9). The so-called “HD-Showcases” for the athletic games and IFA were more like a test. ARD and ZDF don’t plan to begin regular HDTV broadcasts until they kick things off with the February 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. After that, only about 25 percent of ARD/ZDF programming is projected to be in HD.

In June 2009, ZDF proudly announced that the “heute” nightly news studio was now HD-ready. The newscasts are still in SD, but the studio is HD-ready! (And it looks cheap: only a long desk set in front of a digital background. What’s HD about that? It’s more like CGI-ready.)

sky logo

The Sky Deutschland premium satellite service is the only way to get real 1080i HDTV in Germany.

At this time, only the German satellite channels Arte HD and Anixe HD transmit regularly in hi-def. The premium entertainment channel Sky Deutschland (formerly Premiere) offers seven HD channels in 1080i. The German commercial channels RTL and Vox want to start their HDTV programming in the fall of 2009, while Sat.1, Pro7 and Kabel1 are waiting until January 2010. If all else fails, you can try streaming HD video via the Internet.

Currently, only about 30 percent of German households have the necessary equipment to actually receive HDTV. By 2010 that figure is expected to rise to 47 percent. In the US now (2009), that figure is 53 percent (CTAM), but most Americans can actually get HD programming over the air or via cable and satellite. What little German HDTV there is, is only available via satellite. At first, German cable operators were demanding extra payment from ARD/ZDF before they would carry HDTV, but that was refused. (Since about 50 percent of all Germans receive their TV via cable, that is significant.) Just before the Berlin games, the cable operators caved in.*

Although popular American television series shown in the US in HD are also broadcast on German TV (dubbed in German), when you watch 24, CSI: Den Tätern auf der Spur (CSI: Las Vegas), Lost, Navy CIS (NCIS), or Bones: Die Knochenjägerin in Germany, you’ll see them in plain old SD. (For some of these shows you can get German Blu-ray versions in HD that also have the original English soundtrack.) The TV series HD situation may improve, if RTL and Vox actually do offer HD this fall.

Stay tuned!

More about HDTV in Germany:

*In the US, cable and satellite TV providers have to pay the broadcast and cable/sat networks to carry their programs. Somehow in Germany they reversed that: German broadcasters pay the cable and satellite providers to carry their programming! It’s similar to the “caller pays” policy for mobile phone calls in Europe.