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Olympics: Red Button

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Aaron Scullion | 16:15 UK time, Tuesday, 14 August 2012

As Executive Product Manager for BBC Future Media I've led the Red Button and Connected TV services for the Olympics. The Red Button service has reached a huge audience and I wanted to share some of the thinking that went into it.

Up to 24 simultaneous live events were available to satellite and cable homes via Red Button , with Freeview homes getting up to two extra channels in SD, and one in HD. Over twenty four million people (42% of the UK population) watched at least 15 minutes of coverage on the BBC Red Button, which is a fantastic uptake. The reaction in the press and on Twitter has been hugely positive - thanks to everyone for their thoughts and feedback.

App user interface showing an A-Z index in a strip across the top and a selection of sporting events, with stills - such as Tom Daley diving, Athletics, Cycling, and Rowing.

The home page of the service on Sky and Freesat presented an overview of the most exciting events at that moment in time, using text and still images.

Though BBC Sport has had a Red Button video service for some years now, we needed a new interface for these Olympics.

The existing service carries six channels, but we needed to carry up to 24, via an interface that viewers would understand instantly.

Even though the 24 channels are available on the Sky, Freesat and Virgin Media programme guides as well as via Red Button, Red Button is the main access point for most people.

The Red Button app had to be an easy-to-use tool for those people - and add enough value that people would choose to use it even though the channels were available elsewhere. We also wanted to put HD video at the heart of Red Button – something we’ve never done before.

We focussed on two tasks - help viewers find something to watch now, and help them decide what to watch later.

We rejected other features - such as a full schedule, or news stories - that would have added complexity. During the Olympics there is live video for approximately 16 hours each day, so we focused on the one thing viewers would really want to do - watch it.

The schedule data had to be accurate 100% of the time.

In the past, Red Button applications have had a bespoke production process, separate to that used for BBC Online. Given the complexity of 24 live events, that approach would have led to inefficiency and errors.

On this occasion exactly the same content was going out online and on TV, so we were able to share production tools across both services, and drive the application from the same data services as online (blog post by Oliver Bartlett). This means time and schedule information is created once by BBC Sport staff, and updated simultaneously across Red Button, online, mobile and Connected TV. This saves money and ensures complexity is kept to a minimum.

Timetable of 8 events, listed in alphabetical order, with Gymnastics highlighted

On all platforms viewers could access an a-z of all sports, which gave an overview of everything that was covered live that day.

We worked closely with our satellite and cable partners throughout to make the application as responsive as possible, and adapt the design to the capabilities of each platform.

For example, Sky and Freesat boxes were able to display still images, so we could incorporate these into the application.

This was not possible on Virgin Media, but we were able to have a quarter-screen view of each channel available as a preview, so we incorporated this into the application.

You can see the similarities and differences in the applications from the images below.

In addition, we took advantage of HD technology to present HD video streams where the viewer’s set-top box supported them – this meant HD was made available seamlessly, and the viewer did not have to press a button to select it.

Page showing diving events: A-Z across the top, sports and channels down the left hand side, with a picture of Tom Daley in the main part of the screen.

The Red Button homepage in Virgin Media homes used a mini-video window to showcase the best live events, due to the different capabilities of the cable platform.

Finally, we wanted to ensure that the Red Button service looked like our other Olympics products.

My colleague Nick Haley has previously blogged about the design thinking across 2012. This work was established when we started building Red Button, so there were design elements ready for us to adopt - in particular, the use of blue to represent live, the use of timelines to represent how much of an event had elapsed, and the use of Olympic pictograms. We hope this made it easier for users to adapt quickly to our products as they move from device to device to follow the Games.

Simple design with dummy text, spaces for pictures, blank panels, and schedule. The word

Early designs for Red Button were based on our Connected TV app, and needed to be simplified to ensure ease-of-use and responsiveness.

We've also had feedback from users with accessibility issues - in particular, those with poor eyesight - that the application has proven easy to use for them, which we are delighted about.

The project team is overwhelmed by the reaction this application has had and we hope it enhanced your experience of the Games.

Aaron Scullion is Executive Product Manager, BBC Future Media


Update: "Connected TV" removed from title 17:04 Aug 04. Aaron has blogged about BBC Sport on Connected TV in a previous post.


  • Comment number 1.

    Huge thanks to Aaron, Cait and the entire team involved in providing the best Olympic coverage that has ever been staged. It was intuitive, fast and provided stunning quality. Sure, there were issues with things like commentary coming in and out, and obviously the coverage was largely limited to what was provided by the OBS, but it was a *giant* leap forward. My friends in the US had nothing but contempt for NBC. My friends and I in the UK have nothing but praise for the Beeb. (My friends in Australia seem to have gone to ground - something about the Swimming team).

    Anyway: well done!!! Can't wait for you to top this effort during Rio. ;-)

  • Comment number 2.

    The coverage from the Sky+ HD Box service was second-to-none.

    Moving forward I'd be interested to know how the lessons-learned from this will be applied to other sports, such as F1.

    It would also be interesting to know when the BBC Sport App is coming to more capable platforms like Microsoft's XBOX 360.

  • Comment number 3.

    I didn't press the red button once and watched the 24 channels directly from the Sky+HD EPG. Are people like me included in the 24m red button figures?

  • Comment number 4.

    Let me repeat what I said on Mark Thompson's blog:

    I too want to express my thanks to all at the BBC for the Olympics coverage. The 24 satellite channels showing every single event live in glorious HD with knowledgable BBC commentators was a remarkable achievement and I hope there will be more of the same in the future.

    (As an aside, isn't it sad that terrestrial digital TV - Freeview - is such a compromised system with grotty pictures and its limited capacity taken up with trash TV. What a missed opportunity).

    Yes, there were occasionally some poor camera choices (including in the closing ceremony), but on the whole, the quality of everything was superb and we have much to be grateful for. We do well to remember that the broadcasting of London 2012 in other countries was almost certainly far inferior to ours (limited coverage, lots of adverts, or even pay-per-view) - which confirms the unique benefits we enjoy by having the BBC. Long may it continue and prosper.

  • Comment number 5.

    I just wanted to say a massive thanks to the technical teams and engineers who made the red button service possible during the games. Those of us with a bit of experience in broadcasting know how difficult it is to make it seem this effortless. There should be a few technical BAFTAs winging their way to you all real soon.

    The action in front of the lens has made us all proud of our athletes, but it was the BBC's coverage which truly made us proud to be British. You've reinvented the art of live broadcasting and shown the world how it's supposed to be done.

    I also read elsewhere that at one stage you were shifting 700 gigabytes per second for the iPlayer on-line service. This too is a staggering feat of engineering. Sure, the average licence fee payer doesn't realise how monumental an effort this is, and nor should they need to worry about it. But on their behalf this self-confessed telly nerd extends his thanks and well deserved praise to the best in the business.


  • Comment number 6.

    Two comments i'd like to make:
    1 - I loved the red button "no commentary" service. I watched both Opening and Closing in this way and it was so much better than the inane commentary normally provided - more please!
    2 - Isn't it time to quitely retire some of the "seasoned" commentators - such as Brendan Foster - with modern day athletes? If nothing else they would know that Men and Women compete - NOT Men and "The Girls"..

  • Comment number 7.

    It's a shame to see Freeview getting virtually no mention in your post. Clearly the platform isn't capable of supporting the same sort of experience as Freesat and Sky - with that in mind, I'd be really interested to hear what your future plans for Freeview are. Are you hoping for improvements to the platform, so future Freeview TVs could support the same sort of experience as Freesat, or are Freeview viewers likely to be stuck with the same sort of experience for the forseeable future?

  • Comment number 8.

    The BBC loves to blow it's own trumpet but we must remember that all the action was provided by the Olympic Broadcasting Service and is copyrighted by them. The distribution of the 24 channels on satellite was provided by Sky.

    Eurosport also got very good viewing figure both on screen and online. Eurosport did provide over 100 hours of 3D which put the BBC to shame.

    One good thing is the BBC has increased the definition of it's HD service to 1920x1080 all they need to do now is incease the bitrate to a reasonable level.


    I must admit that I decided that satellite was the way to several years ago. This particularly applies to HD. In 2016 or there abouts 6 more multiplexes may become available for freeview. This could provide 24 more HD channels but I suspect not all of it will go that way. Freeview squeezes 4 HD channels in a multiplex and wants to increase it to 5. To make Freeview the same quality as most of Skys HD they would need to reduce it to 3 channels per multiplex. Of course that won't happen because of the expence. Freeview will always be an inferior service.

    I personally don't like the red button service and prefer seperate channels. The only thing I used it for was for F1 practice sessions but now Sky provide that in HD aswell.

  • Comment number 9.

    Must admit I did not use the red button much as I have sky so could watch the 24 channels.
    Having the red button on sky and freesat seemed a waste of time and effort really as the 24 channels were available to everyone on sat and cable.
    But i did give it a brief try and the layout design was nice, clear and easy to use, so praise there.
    But I did have to go to a freeview only house one day during the 2nd week and was most surprised at how bad freeview red button and tv olympic coverage was, with the red button no better than the few tv channels offered. Think your efforts should have been focused on freeview more, the people I went to were very disappointed, when I explained what they could have had with sat and cable. I understand freeview is free and limited in capacity, but Im sure a few more tweaks could have helped make it better for those poor souls on freeview.


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