The BBC has announced its first steps into high definition television (HDTV) broadcasting.

It will offer a forerunning treat over the Whitsun bank holiday weekend (May 27-29) by screening five episodes of Planet Earth (from 7pm on May 27) and all 16 Bleak House instalments (from 8pm on May 28 and 29).

The UK's very first free HDTV broadcast will be launched by the corporation this Thursday (May 11), however. From noon a preview of future programmes will be available from the Sky electronic programme guide. This will only be available to satellite viewers with a HD set top box.

BBC coverage of the World Cup will also be simulcast in HDTV format, and will be carried by NTL Telewest as well as Sky, as will major Wimbledon matches.

In the next stage of its 12-month HDTV trial of demand and technology, from July the corporation will broadcast highlights from across its schedule for a few hours every day.

Meanwhile, the BBC has claimed that a survey shows people expect it to broadcast in HDTV and to do so for free. Of 1,500 respondents, 87 per cent though it would broadcast HDTV at some point and 93 per cent thought it would be free.

Jana Bennett, the corporation's director of television, commented: "These are small but exciting first steps in the BBC's ambition to offer the option of high definition to all in the future.

"It's clear that licence fee payers expect high definition broadcasts from the BBC, the same way they have moved to colour television, widescreen, digital radio and online services with us in the past."
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