The BBC has broken the hearts of obsessive news junkies and Wimbledon fans across the country with the announcement that it's scaling back its 'Red Button' interactive service. From the end of the year, the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 will use the capacity to start broadcasting their HD channels.
The BBC currently uses this Multiplex B capacity for three video streams that carry a rolling news multi-screen service and two channels (301 and 302) that are used for extra content at major events such as Glastonbury and Wimbledon. One of these channels (302) and the news multi-screen (305) will close on Freeview.
For the last 10 years, the Big British Castle has provided multi-screen content for
large music and sports events on its extra Freeview capacity. These
services, which are run under the name Red Button, but are actually
just normal TV channels accessed in a slightly different way, using an MHEG-5 data service that used to be called BBCi. While the text-based content will continue unabated, some of the video streams will be closed down to make room for HD on Freeview.
As with all Auntie's decisions, the general public has waded in with its size nines and declared the corporation inept and cruel. Comments on the Red Button blog include such gems as, "I'm sure everyone would rather more content in lesser quality pictures than less content in higher quality pictures," and, "HD, which is very questionable value, should be put on separate additional multiplexes. If the government won't permit extra multiplexes then HD shouldn't be on Freeview at all." These people need their eyes examined, because the video quality on these interactive channels is nothing short of diabolical.
To be fair, there's plenty to get angry about here. In an ideal world, Ofcom would make extra spectrum available past the DSO to enable both HD and Red Button interactive -- but it's determined to sell the analogue TV frequencies to the highest bidder, and in this financial climate, that won't be a TV company. The BBC has, to some extent, been bullied into giving up 75 per cent of its multiplex to other companies -- but all the while, Freeview is festooned with nonsense. There are still shopping channels that only the slowest of mind would ever watch and for some unearthly reason there's ITV2+1, which is a repeat of a channel that only shows repeats.
It's clear the BBC dropped the ball on this over ten years ago. Launching extra channels in an era when bandwidth wasn't at such a premium was a mistake. It's created a situation where people have become accustomed to watching sport and music events across multiple channels. It might have been smarter to allocate more bandwidth to the BBC's channels, thus increasing picture quality beyond its current catastrophic level.
Whatever side of the fence you're on, it's always a shame to see services removed, and there's much anger here about the timing. After all, it's only very small areas of the country that will have access to HD this year, but everyone is losing these multi-screen channels from next week. The BBC must now apply to sub-lease its capacity on Multiplex B and HD broadcasts will start in December, with the hardware needed to watch them not available until early 2010.