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Sep 15, 3:59 PM (ET)


AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) - Europe's first high-definition television channel went on the air over the weekend with a trial broadcast of music and sports programming. Only next year is the technology set to go mainstream.

Europe's shift to the sharper images and clearer sound of high-definition TV is moving much slower than in the United States, where several million HDTV sets are already in use.

While the U.S. government has mandated a switch from analog to digital TV signals, which make high-definition broadcasts possible, Europe has yet to enact such rules.

The new HDTV channel, Euro 1080, broadcast live coverage Saturday from the World Athletics Final in Monaco and the "Night of The Proms" concert in London to an audience of journalists and TV executives in Amsterdam.

The official launch of the channel, owned by the Belgian company Alfacam, is slated for January. The name Euro 1080 refers to the number of lines in the image, double the quality of "low-definition" regular TV.

Viewers will receive four to five hours of daily programing, ranging from the Euro 2004 soccer championships to Vienna's annual New Year's concert.

The broadcasts will be free, but the equipment certainly won't.

While the quality is undoubtedly superior, viewers must purchase a new television set, ranging from $1,800 to $4,000, and a set-top box receiver costing up to $550.

Although the prices have been dropping about 15 percent each quarter, it's unclear whether the cost is low enough to attract Europe's 380 million television viewers. So far, HDTV sets haven't sold well, mainly "because there's no content," said Euro 1080's technical manager, Jacques Schepers.

Industry analyst Vamsi Sistla of Allied Business Intelligence described the dilemma as "a classic chicken-and-egg problem."

"If you don't have the content, people aren't going to fork out a few grand for the set," he said. So, while broadcasters wait for viewers to buy sets, viewers wait for content, which is more costly when shot in high definition.

In the United States, about 2.5 million digital TV sets - most were HDTV-equipped - were sold last year, and the average retail price dropped to $1,688 from $3,147 in 1998, when only a few thousand were purchased, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. No figures were available for European sales.

Part of the reason for the greater U.S. popularity is cheaper sets, and most major American broadcasters, such as HBO and ESPN, offer considerable high-definition programming, a trend echoed in Japan, Korea and Australia.

The fragmented European broadcast market and linguistic diversity have been largely to blame for the slow growth.

Euro 1080 will initially serve 30 countries with programs of minimal spoken content that easily cross borders, such as music and sports. A second channel will broadcast to movie theaters or sports bars where audiences can watch the Olympics or a Rolling Stones concert.

Euro 1080 produces 10 to 12 high-definition programs per month, and plans to supplement those offering with programs from the United States and Japan.

The channel still has some hurdles to clear. Sistla, the analyst, estimates that cable TV companies need to spend about $1,000 per subscriber to upgrade their equipment for HDTV - costs the European cable industry cannot afford.

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