Interactive bright young things
Is the red button dead? That was the question being asked at the eighth annual Interactive TV Show in Berlin this week.
OK, it was a deliberately provocative and possibly rhetorical question - but it certainly had media executives from across the industry scratching their goatee beards about the future of digital TV.
(By the way, I made up the bit about goatees. I don’t remember seeing a single one – but why let the facts get in the way of good old-fashioned “meeja” stereotypes…)
Anyway, from the perspective of BBC Sport, the answer is a resounding 'no'. This year has seen us launch a number of highly successful interactive TV services, with millions of viewers taking advantage of the extra choice the red button offers for the BBC's major sporting events, including the World Cup, Wimbledon, Winter Olympics and Commonwealth Games.
Then there are the multi-stream services we routinely run behind Grandstand on a Saturday afternoon which, as my colleague Patrick Dalzell has discussed before, give us more scope to cover so-called 'minority' sports like gymnastics and badminton.
But I can still see why the question was being asked at this conference. For the BBC, as a public service organisation, the issue has always been about providing more choice for the audience - but some commercial broadcasters are still trying to work out the best ways to make money from these new media opportunities.
One British broadcaster described red button services as "over promised and under developed". I have some sympathy with this commercial view, because while the hype of more than a decade ago was that interactive TV would create a whole new viewing experience, the reality has often been more prosaic. Indeed, arguably the only genre area where the red button has so far transformed TV viewing patterns is sport. It is impossible to imagine, for instance, the BBC covering an event like the Olympics in the future without offering an element of viewer choice.
My role at the Interactive TV Show was to discuss BBC Sport’s experiences around the World Cup, when we had a comprehensive red button service and also streamed all our games live on broadband. I was joined on a debating panel by media big-wigs from Hong Kong, France, Germany and the UK – and what struck me was the fact that so many different companies had tackled football’s biggest event in such a diverse and highly creative fashion, from innovative gambling services to video on mobile phones. With such goodies on offer during Germany 2006, the viewer was definitely the winner (oh, and Italy of course).
But one of the most interesting themes I took from the conference was just how advanced the UK interactive TV market is compared with many other countries. We may sometimes gripe (after all, we're British) at the clunkiness of our red button services, but the applications the likes of the BBC, Sky and ITV are able to provide are often the envy of our overseas counterparts. For them though, the nirvana of IPTV (the convergence of broadband and TV) at least offers a future where in-depth interactivity will be possible.
And fear not, the irony of the conference’s location - Berlin - was not lost on me.
Having spent the whole of June and July stuck (like most of my colleagues) in a sweaty office in west London, I did finally get to Germany on World Cup business. Only three months after the World Cup had finished.
Oh well, better luck next time, I suppose...