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The Future of Red Button

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Daniel Danker Daniel Danker | 11:30 UK time, Wednesday, 27 June 2012

a mock up of what a possible future for Red Button might look like

What a future connected Red Button service might look like

I'm Daniel Danker, General Manager of On Demand at the BBC, and today I spoke at the Future of Broadcasting conference on integrating online and traditional TV, focusing on our vision for Red Button.

Thirteen years ago this week, the BBC launched the first interactive experience for Wimbledon audiences via the Red Button. While watching Wimbledon, audiences could choose their court, monitor the scores in detail, and play along with an interactive quiz. A million people accessed this in 1999. Just two years later this figure was four million - fully 44% of our audience who tuned in played along.

Wimbledon helped us define what Red Button could deliver to our audiences. Since that launch thirteen years ago, Red Button has gone from success to success, with a third of the population of the UK pressing Red on a weekly basis.

Today's Red Button

Each month, Red Button reaches a third of the population of the UK. While watching TV, users simply press the Red button on their remote and get quick and easy access to news headlines, sports scores, and the weather. While new forms of interactivity have popped up around TV and struggled to really become an inherent part of how people watch telly, the Red Button has been a quiet hero in the world of companion experiences. It has brought simple, elegant interactivity to television for over a decade.

The BBC is committed to delivering quality programming - the challenge and opportunity of Red Button is in figuring out how we can add even greater value to that content for audiences, right on the TV. A prime example developed last year was the Maestro Cam, which enabled Proms fans to see the concert from the perspective of the conductor.

One of our more surprising experiments has been to see if Red Button could make radio services richer on TV. With the Red Button, audiences have had the opportunity to watch the Radio 1 studios live, and get up close and person with live music sessions on Radio 2. This is a great way for me and my team to experiment with transforming the way audiences think about the radio experience and what it can offer them visually as well as aurally.

The proms from the conductor's perspective with a different shot insert.

Maestro Cam

Red Button reborn

Yet Red Button has its limitations. Because it relies entirely on broadcast technologies, Red Button competes with other channels for spectrum. This is a scarce resource. So scarce, in fact, that this year we've seen a phased reduction of broadcast Red Button services, as part of our Delivering Quality First strategy.

This presents us with an opportunity to give Red Button a new lease of life, taking advantage of new web-based technologies that deliver richer, more visually-enticing experiences. And today at the conference I outlined our ambition to connect the very best of traditional Red Button with the breadth and depth of BBC Online.

This new "Connected" Red Button will become the foundation for interactivity around the BBC's television channels on the TV, and I believe that it will set the benchmark for seamlessly bringing broadcast television together with the internet.

Making great TV even better

This isn't about browsing the web, ordering a pizza, or doing your banking on your TV; nor is about pouring all of BBC Online into the TV experience.

It's about making great TV even better. How will it do this?

Imagine you're watching Eastenders and realise you missed the previous episode. Press Red and instantly bring up iPlayer to catch up on the episode you missed.

Or you're watching a cooking programme and you see a recipe you'd like to try. Press Red, save it for later and access the recipe on your computer, tablet or mobile when you're ready to cook.

With a wealth of content at our fingertips, Connected Red Button seamlessly brings together broadcast and online television. Audiences will be able to experience this first-hand during the Olympics, where they'll be able to watch 24 live channels, in HD, available exclusively online but delivered to the TV in a way that blends the media and makes the technology truly invisible.

We'll be exploring ways we can extend these experiences to mobile and tablet devices also, with our upcoming companion screen experience for Antiques Roadshow being a good example of what's possible. And we're looking beyond the tech-savvy to ensure simplicity and ease of use is at the heart of everything we do. The Antiques Roadshow pilot is very much a mainstream experience, built around a mainstream programme, extended and made better through participation and interactivity.

Reinventing Red Button

Red Button might have started simplistically as a way for the BBC to provide audiences with instant, highly relevant information right on the TV. And what a success it's been, still continuing its impressive growth over a decade after it was first unveiled. But while some might have expected Red Button to slowly be replaced with the web across an assortment of devices, no one would deny that the simplicity and ease of Red Button is as important today as when it was first introduced.

So rather than anticipate a transition away from Red Button, at the BBC we're bringing the very best of Red Button together with the very best of BBC Online, to reinvent the experience on any screen.

This is our vision for the future, and I hope to build on this in more detail later in the year. Until then, do leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Daniel Danker is General Manager, Programmes & On-Demand

N.B. image and caption at top of post changed at 13.55 p.m. Wednesday 27th June


  • Comment number 1.

    It's interesting to see the strategy but how does that tie in to continuing to provide the same services today? One of the first attempta at this strategy seems to be the BBC Sport app on Virgin Tivo but that simply doesn't work in an acceptable way.

    How are you going to ensure that you can continue to provide a high quality service across many different devices if the current standard based services based on a broadcast model (which seems to work) are replaced with bespoke applications for different devices? Won't this result in fragmentation and different services being available on different devices? Are you working on defining new standards rather than bespoke apps per device?

  • Comment number 2.

    It's ridiculous under the guise of platform neutrality you're giving Sky and cable viewers as poor a service as we've had on Freeview over the last couple of years (today is a classic example of how one red button stream is insufficient) - and yet you're happy to plug services on broadband which is probably even less neutral than the differences between TV platforms - both in terms of who can and can not use it and also in terms of the speed people receive around the country, meaning through no fault of their own some people can't access the services due to the speeds required.

  • Comment number 3.

    Am I correct in understanding that you won't be able to access the new Red Button services via your remote control unless your TV is also hooked upto
    the Internet, whereas now you just need to press the remote Red Button and you have
    the extra services.

    While I appreciate the BBC is having to save money by cutting back on Red Button sevices your also asking your viewers to buy a new Tv that is Imternet compliant.

  • Comment number 4.

    The Red Button works on all TV's but the current internet apps are not working on older sets even if they are connected. I'm not getting The new sport app as my Panasonic is a 2010/2011 model, nor am I getting iplayer but EuroSport have just started a sport app that is working so why aren't BBC systems backward compatible to older sets. When we bought these sets we knew that there would be new developments that we would miss out on but we expect the BBC to provide a universal service for most of their output.

  • Comment number 5.

    My monthly download allowance (tied accommodation) is 10 GB, which might not go too far on Connected apps. Please keep Red Button Digital Text!

  • Comment number 6.

    @Chris - Today's Red Button remains; Connected Red Button services will augment this experience by bridging broadcast with the Internet. You're right that we've had some challenges getting consistent high quality video playback on Virgin TiVo lately. The good news is that through those challenges, we've learned a lot about how to deliver live streams to these devices, and have made changes to fix the problem.

    With BBC iPlayer available on over 550 devices, we now have a tremendous amount of experience delivering a scale. We've built technology that makes it easier for us to build once but deliver to literally hundreds of devices. We're also setting clearer rules about our own system requirements, so platform manufacturers can anticipate them and adhere to the right standards up front.

    @Brekkie - It's unfortunate that not all Internet connections are created equal. We do a lot of work to integrate technologies such as Adaptive Bitrate Streaming (ABR), which help overcome some of those gaps. Of course, not everyone has sufficient bandwidth to meet even the minimum thresholds that ABR would help with. But I'm confident that through the proliferation of services that make use of this bandwidth, operators will be committed to filling the gaps in their networks.

    @dgmj - When accessed from a TV, the Connected Red Button will require the TV or set-top box to have an active Internet connection. (Remember that Connected Red Button will eventually be available on any screen, not just the telly.) Loads of devices are already connected. Increasingly people are connecting their Connected TVs, and operator services such as Virgin TiVo and BT Vision all run devices that are always connected. Once connected, the simplicity of the experience will continue to flourish; users simply press the red button to get going.

    @Martinbee - With BBC iPlayer on over 550 devices, I can confidently say that we're highly committed to bringing our connected products to every device we can. In many cases we can't go back in time, though, as the underlying platform software on those devices doesn't necessarily support all the functionality required. For example, the Sport app includes live TV (delivered in HLS), which only the very newest TVs support over an Internet connection. That said, we're building technology that will continue to make it easier for us to reach the greatest breadth of devices, without exploding the number of integrations we have to do.

    @Sue_Aitch - Fair enough! If you choose not to connect your device, the traditional Red Button is still alive and well.

  • Comment number 7.

    Somewhat off topic, but as the relevant comments sections are now closed this is the only place to post this question and it does relate to Daniel Danker's comment on iPlayer.

    Today, Adobe announced that it will not be producing a version of Flash for Android 4.1 (Jellybean) and will be phasing it out for other versions.

    How does the BBC intend to address this with regard to iPlayer? Will you be moving to an HTML 5 compliant player (which is, IMHO, what you should have done in the first place)?

    With the release of Android 4.1 imminent (July for Nexus devices), you don't have a great deal of time!!!

  • Comment number 8.

    Red Button is not giving the choice it claims to give. We are being swamped by tennis while the all-important European athletics championsips (vital to pre-Olympics selection) are not available on Freeview. So much for the promise to provide alternatives when live action is taking place. Tennis is overkill coverage, considering the athletics would be on for only a couple of hours compared with endless Wimbledon blah.

  • Comment number 9.

    Great to hear the Red Button is still a core part of your strategy. I am lucky enough to have a good quality internet connection, but still find the quality of Red Button video much poorer than the traditional SD satellite streams. This is particularly noticeable with Wimbledon coverage - the frame rate of the online stream makes the movement of the ball and players rather 'stuttery'. Are you working to improve this? Is the intent that future coverage will be 'HD', not just for the Olympics?

  • Comment number 10.

    As a Virgin Tivo customer, I've been enjoying the new Red Button content, especially since seeing the Sport fleshed out to include the Euros and Wimbledon.

    One question though - will this ever include any text content? It seems absurd to have such a fancy interactive red button service, but not be able to view results, fixtures, standings etc.

  • Comment number 11.

    Sounds like these services should become available on devices like Wii U and Xbox Smart Screen which are supporting services linked to video content. A BBC Companion app for Windows 8/RT, Windows Phone, iOS, Android etc would be quite welcome. Also if these accompanying experiences can be provided for On-Demand content, and maybe even Archive content...

  • Comment number 12.

    Any chance of a list of Freeview services the BBC Sport App will be on. Us Freeview folk keep getting told to stop moaning about having a worse service than for Beijing because you're offering 24 streams via broadband but there is zero information on what Freeview boxes/TVs will receive the app and from posts above it appears even those who can get the iPlayer via TV won't get them.

    The BBC seem to have forgotten about the basics but I really hope the Olympics gets a tailored text service rather than the generic grey BBC Sport pages - the pages where it's pot luck whether the story you link to actually has any relation to the sport listed in the news menu.

  • Comment number 13.

    Up here in the sticks anyone more than a step or two down the relays gets Freeview Lite ... and they also tend to have a slower connection to online services as well, sometimes just dial up. Much unbroadcastable language was used by one member of my family when Wimbledon coverage switched away from the Sharapova match with a cheerful "you can continue watching that on the website..." And digital radio covering 90%? Technically, I can receive it. In practice, that's upstairs, and with the radio in the right place. And is it still correct that digital receivers get through batteries more rapidly? Not much use when floods/gales/snow toppled your electricity supply a day or more ago and you're listening to local radio for information.

  • Comment number 14.

    @Epynomous Cowherd - Unfortunately "HTML5 compliant player" doesn't quite provide everything that is needed to play video. It gets you to a consistent markup language, but to play video we need a degree of content protection that has yet to be standardised. On Apple devices, we use HLS (HTTP Live Streaming). Coupled with the level of protection that Apple provides in the player, we can be confident that our programmes will get from point A to point B in the right way. Android doesn't provide this same level of protection yet, but Flash compensated for that in the past -- that's why we used it on Android. Now we're working on a longer-term solution for Android devices.

    @highscore - I'm not the best person to comment on the editorial trade-offs between sports, but the constraint you're describing is precisely the kind that Connected Red Button overcomes. The Internet helps us overcome the scarcity of broadcast spectrum which forces the kinds of trade-offs you mentioned.

    @Bluestraw - If you're having playback issues, we'd love to hear about them so we can try to diagnose the problem. If you'd like to follow up, please go to https://iplayerhelp.external.bbc.co.uk/help/. The Contact Us link is available at the bottom of every FAQ. When you submit, use "Fault report" so your message routes to the correct team.

    @talisker71 - I think you're absolutely right that Red Button (connected or not) should go well beyond audio / video. Some of the most popular content on today's Red Button is in text form: news, sports scores, lottery results. You can be sure that text will play a key role in Red Button's connected future.

    @Brekkie - Since the BBC Sport app includes live video, it introduces a host of new technology platform requirements for the devices that run it. While your television can play live TV that comes in over broadcast, playing live video that is streamed over the Internet is a whole new problem. This is why, by and large, only the very latest TVs and connected services will support the Sport app. Of course, we're also doing work to scale up the number of target devices, and have technology in place that makes this process much faster. But it's unlikely that an existing Freeview box will make the list due to gaps in the underlying technology platform.

  • Comment number 15.

    I exclusively use DVBViewer on a HTPC to watch BBC TV. DVBViewer have recently implemented an MHEG 5 engine which while it mostly works on the Red Button services, the MHEG version of the iPlayer has recently been blocked by the BBC. Surely integrated PCs are the future rather than locking viewers into a restricted bunch of set top boxes?

  • Comment number 16.

    I think the industry needs to realise viewers aren't willing to update their set top boxes/TVs as often as they might their phone. The Freeview switchover was a big ask which people were willing to accept as it was really the first big change since the introduction of colour (or for the more technologically advanced, Ceefax!). Since then though people have bought HDTVs which can't receive HD TV without yet another box, so bought HD boxes and then in some cases bought "connected" boxes which now it appears are not able to receive your "connected" content, even if you can receive the iPlayer.


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