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BBC Red Button: BBC Trust Service Licence Review

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John Denton John Denton | 12:33 UK time, Thursday, 11 November 2010

Today the BBC Trust published its review of the BBC's interactive television service, BBC Red Button. The BBC Trust regularly reviews BBC services, inviting public opinion to assess how well our services are performing and what, if anything, should change.

This review follows a public consultation undertaken in late 2009, which produced over 5,600 responses, and included a study of the BBC's own research into how viewers engage with the service.

I have captured the key points below but the full report can be read on the BBC Trust website.

Wide usage

The review shows that BBC Red Button has a large and varied audience. With 12 million people using the service every week, it's the most used interactive TV service in the UK and the only interactive BBC service available to the UK's 'offline' population. As the digital replacement for our analogue text service Ceefax, it's an important source of instant information for millions of people. It's also a means to deliver a greater choice of programming; near on-demand video from large events such as The BBC Proms and Glastonbury, as well as minority sports that wouldn't otherwise make it into a crowded schedule. Given BBC Red Button's value in delivering what's often niche content we're delighted that the review points to such broad appeal.

Value for money

Digital Text is the most used part of the BBC Red Button service and accounts for only a small proportion of its total cost. By drawing upon news, weather, and sports content already produced for BBC Online we're able to offer audiences great value for money.

Making the most of interactivity

The review points out where there's room for improvement. Generally speaking, features that run on top of live TV viewing like sing-along lyrics during Eurovision or interactive quizzes during shows like In It To Win It are shown to be popular, as is our support for big events like Wimbledon and T in the Park.

Certain content is proven to be more expensive to produce and tends to be less popular, particularly interactive experiences which are not related to live channel broadcasts. Although we've already started to move away from producing this type of content it's helpful to have this confirmed and the Trust has agreed that we should continue to play to our strengths in providing cost-effective services that enhance and complement the live TV experience.

The review suggests that viewers some times struggle to find what is actually being broadcast on the BBC Red Button service. Although this information is available online and inside the Radio Times magazine, we are investigating better ways of making this information more widely accessible.

Clear editorial priorities

The review shows that despite its popularity, audience appreciation of BBC Red Button is moderate in comparison to what we offer online. Whilst this is true of interactive services from other broadcasters across the board, we'll need to look into why exactly this is. It's also important that we articulate more clearly what the service stands for. For instance, the review suggests provision of information on local politics falls below users' expectations but that they don't feel that this should be a high priority for the service.

It's a tricky balancing act, but the findings will help us to focus on delivering quality core content, and to avoid providing information that users already access elsewhere. In the context of the recent Strategy Review 'Putting Quality First' which places an emphasis on doing fewer things better, it's important we keep in mind audience expectations as we shape our products.

Market fragmentation

The review reflects that, unusually for our services, BBC Red Button distribution costs account for the majority of service spend. This is partly due to the efficiencies of re-versioning material from BBC TV, Radio and Online (and so less spend on content), but also because the cost of serving BBC Red Button across different platforms is relatively high.

The Trust has asked us to review these distribution costs to ensure better value for money and posed the question whether, in a world of constrained bandwidth, this is the best use of the BBC's broadcast capacity.

That said, despite substantial distribution costs, the sheer number of BBC Red Button users equates to a relatively low cost per user, of 6.4p per user per week.

BBC Red Button has always been about innovation and as Internet and broadcast technologies converge, we should look to introduce more services via broadband, where capacity is less of an issue.

And, it's clear that as Internet-connected TV develops, standardised products built (as much as possible) on open technologies will enable us to maintain cost-effectiveness and minimise complexity for both users and the industry.

There is huge creative potential for the future of BBC Red Button. The service currently provides a link between linear TV viewing and interactive features so could prove to be an important gateway into Internet-connected TV experiences.

BBC Red Button could also contribute to the growth of media literacy within the new TV landscape. More than 40% of BBC Red Button users (five million people each week) don't use BBC Online, and we believe the service could play an important role in taking these offline audiences online, or by providing digital content to them via broadcast.

Our thinking over what we'll be doing is still evolving and we'll provide more updates on this in due course. In the meantime, we'll continue to post round ups of 'What's On' BBC Red Button, on the Internet Blog.

John Denton is Managing Editor, TV Platforms, BBC Future Media & Technology


  • Comment number 1.

    What is the point in such consultations when it takes 11 months for the outcome to be published and the main issues (which crop up here time and time again) - that being the availability on Freeview and Freesat - are completely ignored.

    Well - I say ignore. It's touched upon briefly in points 29-31, where they state the importance of a parity between service - so they'll set about achieving that by closing streams on Sky.

    This isn't a review of the Red Button - more a blue print for IPTV, but just as digital television capacity doesn't offer the infinite possibilities we were led to believe a decade ago, don't think for one minute that ultimately restrictions will be placed on online streamed and iPlayer content as believe it or not the net isn't infinite either - certainly not on a BBC budget anyway.

    I think the BBC have really let viewers down over their handling of this and if they'd invest money in services rather than 15 month long consultations which avoid the real issues, some of those issues might actually be addressed.

  • Comment number 2.

    I'm sure this post will be blocked, but it is worth a shot and it IS on-topic.

    I and many others have asked for years why the red button graphic could not be used to provide a Digital Onscreen Graphic for the BBC's channels.

    Such a DOG would be removable by the viewer and so it would please everyone, those who want the DOG (which to be honest I think is just Marketing) and those who hate the DOG. Those who don't mind the DOG wouldn't notice any real difference.

    Is there any reason why this wouldn't work?

  • Comment number 3.

    I think the most amazing 'revelation' out of this report is the amount of reversioning that happens to the content. There must be a cheaper automated solution to this??

  • Comment number 4.

    Alberton - I'm afraid you are off topic. This post is about the BBC Trust's review of Red Button and having read it I can see no mention of DOGs anywhere in it.


  • Comment number 5.

    OK fine, I won't say any more here, beyond the wish that someone would at least look at the idea.

  • Comment number 6.

    On that line though I wish the press red bug would fade out like it did in the early days. It's so annoying having to remove it with the green button every time you either flick channels or exit other BBCi content.

  • Comment number 7.

    Alberon, I think your idea has a lot of merit. I'd like to hear a response.

  • Comment number 8.

    Dear Alberon,
    I too have thought of this approach to DOG (which is not something the Trust consultation looked at) but it carries a technical overhead different across each platform and would make presentation more complicated. Secondly DOG remain over channels in such a way to ensure BBC attribution so its not something we would want to be easily removed.

    The Red Button icons do fade out where we can do this i.e. on Freesat and Freeview and we only use them as prompts as they have been shown to be very effective.

    Re-versioning is a broad term which means that we take existing content such as Comedy clips, in programme clips and then we edit them together usually with new graphics and, where we can, we film extra pieces with presenters or stars of the programme. It is very cost effective as it uses existing material.
    In the case of Sport, which is one of the big attractions of the service - we have to do a lot of work to capture all the sport coverage and then ensure it is edited and presented back. These are then used on BBC Online and appear on Big Screens across the country.
    Finally our content costs also include the payment of rights to various owners and sports bodies. All in all our content costs when split per person watching means we cost just over 2p per week which I think is very good value.
    The Trust have drawn attention to the substantial cost of distributing Red Button which translates to what we have to pay for broadcast bandwidth on satellite and free-to-air. But even with this cost it still works out at 6.4p per week per user.
    There is some supporting materials on the Trust website which goes into detail about how the viewers rate us. I would be interested to hear from you all where the Trust report marries with your perceptions of the Red Button service.

  • Comment number 9.

    I think the statistics can be misleading... stating the "most widely used service" is all very impressive until you strip out the digital text bit. I assume that is the cheapest element yet the most widely viewed. Secondly, multiple streams for Sport and Glastonbury etc is where the service is simply another way of creating a channel.. useful but hardly interactive and could be achieved more traditionally. (I for one won't watch sport this way because it prevents the biggest advantage of PVRs on Sport - freeze and rewind)

    So those two elements removed leaves the expensive "interactive services" which are not events nor text. I'd like to know how much that element costs and whether it is popular - I'd guess it is of marginal value and very expensive per viewer. That would be more illuminating information.

    Personally -I would not miss red dot disappearing completely - in all senses.

  • Comment number 10.

    Reading the statement "40% don't use online" sort of suggests that there is still a market for "teletext" for those non-internet users. That suggests to me that Digital text is the BIG part of the popularity of Red Dot.. in which case it is doubly misleading that so big a proportion of the users is used to justify the use of other Red Dot services which are so infrequently used.

    Take out digital text users and how much per viewer does Red Dot cost?

  • Comment number 11.

    Re: prompts. They don't fade out now until the show is over - they used to fade out within 30 seconds, and though I agree the prompt is a key driver to services, surely anyone intending to use them would be just as inclined to having seen the prompt for the few few seconds of the broadcast as they would with the prompt stuck on screen for the whole match.

    As for the text service - well along with Sky Text it's all we've got now Teletext has given up. I'm still not convinced BBC has translated Ceefax to digital as seemlessly as Teletext had (the 4 digit page numbers really bug me), and there are some silly errors which remain to be fixed (i.e. Sport on p380 often with headlines listed under the wrong sport, or the Oscar winners spread across several pages which don't tally up rather than in one article), but on the whole it's a service that is appreciated - though I would like to see some effort put into special sections for events like the World Cup and Olympics. The content is pretty much still there, but it's harder to navigate than the tailor made services we used to see.

  • Comment number 12.

    I know that not everything from Ceefax is published on Red Button Digital Text, but I would appreciate the Team checking the content of BBC Ceefax pages 695 to 698 and BBC Red Bttton Digital Text is all up-to-date before to olong: BBC Red Button still has the old address for the BBC's PO Box 1922, which moved from Glasgow to Darlington on Ceefax and on BBC Online some time ago. Updating the switchover dates for STV Central, Anglia, Central and Yorkshire on Ceefax page 283 would also be helpful to viewers.


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