On Thursday the 9th of October, What's On was taken out from the BBC Red Button service. This generated complaints from some viewers, and we have responded both within the Red Button service and via this blog.
The decision to remove What's On wasn't one that was taken lightly. To understand why we took this decision, I'd like to explain the processes we went through to get to where we are now.
In October 2006, we started thinking about how the Red Button service should prepare for Digital Switchover (DSO). DSO, which will replace all analogue signals with digital signals, is being rolled out progressively throughout the UK. It starts next Thursday, and the transmitter at Selkirk will be the first one to be switched over.
A "side effect" of DSO is the demise of Ceefax, as this is currently carried only on analogue.
One of the first pieces of work that we needed to do therefore was to create a gap analysis of Ceefax content against Red Button content. We knew that Ceefax carries more content than the Red Button service and that whilst the Red Button service can accommodate most of this, some Ceefax services, like Share Prices and Flight Arrivals, use up a lot of bandwidth on the digital platforms.
This was a big issue for us. We are constrained by the amount of bandwidth that is available for the Red Button service on all digital platforms. For example, on Freeview the Red Button text service has a total of 700kb/s of bandwidth. That space is taken up not just by content, but also graphics, the MHEG application, templates and some video and audio. Yet here was more content that we needed to fit in.
It was very obvious to us that there was no way we could fit all this content and still hope that the service would remain as accessible as it currently is. To find out how much slower the service would be if we added all this content, we ran a series of tests. The conclusion was as expected - the service took a much longer time to load if all Ceefax content was added. We know viewers like the performance to be as fast as possible so this provided us with a challenge.
Our tests also showed that we could only add an extra amount of content before the service started to deteriorate. The question was, if we couldn't add all the content we wanted, what content should we have on the service?
Running parallel to the technical tests was a series of discussions between the TV Platforms Group and our colleagues in the BBC's Journalism division, who produce our News, Sport and Weather content. Obviously all Ceefax content is important, but if we couldn't carry all of it, which ones should we carry?
A series of research projects was carried out, aimed at finding out what content was deemed the most valuable by Ceefax users. The results helped us decide what we felt was the best of Ceefax content, and this in turn formed the basis of the content that we offer on the Red Button on all platforms. We also looked at what content was available elsewhere both via TV screens, in newspapers and online via websites.
We agreed that these pieces of Ceefax content were needed on the Red Button:
- UK Flight Arrivals
- Community content (which includes information from voluntary organisations and Read Hear, the magazine for deaf and hard of hearing people in the UK)
- Farm Prices for the rural community
Now we had to find the space to fit all this content in.
This is not such an issue on the Virgin Media platform, as our space constraint isn't as great here. On Sky, we were broadcasting duplicate content on various transponders, so we took the decision to re-structure our content so that we avoid duplication as far as is possible. This meant that no content was lost, even if the journey to get to that content may change.
Freeview however was a problem. The service on Freeview was already as small as we could technically make it, yet we were still required to add more content. Was there anything we could lose on this platform?
Earlier in the year, we removed our Movies service. This definitely helped, but we still needed more space. After much debate, we came to the conclusion that the only service we could lose to make room for newer content was What's On.
When What's On was first launched, many Freeview set-top boxes did not include Electronic Programme Guides (EPGs). However, modern set-top boxes now do include the EPG. Therefore we felt that it didn't make sense for us to continue this service when it is available elsewhere, and when we need to use the space it occupied for other content.
We realise that some people are unhappy with this decision, but in our opinion, the experience of getting programme information alongside the broadcast and being able to tune to it is better via EPGs than the old What's On service.
As more and more of the TV screens become IP enabled then viewers will see more textual information being made available this way. Watch this space!
Farah Fahmy is a Development Producer for the BBC Red Button service.