diamond geezer

 Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Do you remember, before Jenson Button became proper famous, his cheesy TV infomercial for the BBC's Red Button service. If so, you may have been tempted to start pressing red to access a whole variety of interactive (and not quite so interactive) televisual features. The digital replacement for Ceefax, for example, which manages to stick even fewer words on your screen than the old Mode 7 Teletext graphics ever did. The News Multiscreen service, perhaps, which loops the latest news headlines and weather forecasts in miniature hard-to-view quadrants. Or one of the additional interactive channels hidden away behind the scenes, probably showing sport or music or background features. Extra content, extra choice.

Until yesterday. Yesterday the BBC's Red Button content slimmed down, or at least it did for those of us watching on Freeview. Less content, less choice. Two of the services were snuffed out, now available only to folk with Sky, cable or Freesat. Taking their place, for the time being, absolutely nothing. This change isn't about saving money, it's about realigning Freeview's services for the far distant future. I count myself amongst the many people who aren't terribly happy about it, not happy at all.

The first casualty of Tuesday's extinguishing is the News Multiscreen service. Want to catch up on the latest news headlines right now without waiting up to 30 minutes for the BBC News Channel to get round to telling you. Sorry, you can't have news "now" any more, you'll have to wait. Want to watch that two-minute catch-up on the latest Afghan situation or the credit crunch? Maybe one of your neighbours with a satellite dish will let you pop round and have a look. Want to check the weather forecast as spoken by a real human being, rather than relying on the BBC website's embarrassingly inaccurate short range graphics? No longer an option. Not good.

And the second casualty is channel 302, the second of the BBC's additional red button channels. Everyone can still get 301, but 302 has gone dark to the entire Freeview audience. This means there's now only one place to view 'extras', not two, so expect to see fewer additional sporting events, fewer interesting Grand Prix camera angles and only half as many alternative stages at Glastonbury. On Monday, for example, Freeviewfolk wanting an Electric Proms catch-up could have chosen between Shirley Bassey on 301 or Robbie Williams on 302. On Tuesday Robbie (and 302) disappeared, leaving only Dame Shirl on looping repeat. Half the options, half the fun.

Freeview's sports fans will probably feel the greatest severance. Let's take next weekend's red button sporting action as an example (it's here, if you're interested). Saturday morning's Grand Prix Third Practice, no problem, but the subsequent "Live coverage of Qualifying, with choice of commentaries" is "Not available on Freeview". Likewise you'll be able to watch Final Score with Gabby but not the simultaneous Rugby League Four Nations Forum. The evening's live coverage of the Cycling Track World Cup will be halted on Freeview an hour earlier than for viewers on other services. On Sunday, the 11-hour rolling repeat of the Football League Show will be invisible on Freeview, as will all the extra Grand Prix commentary options and rolling highlights that BBC viewers have recently come to expect. And if you want to watch Cardiff v Nottingham Forest live, sorry, you'll have to wait until the New York Marathon finishes because that's been deemed more important.

And what's the BBC's excuse for these newly-blank channels? High Definition telly, that's what. HD isn't yet available on Freeview, and they think it ought to be, eventually, when suitable set-top boxes and bandwidth exist. You'll need to buy a new (expensive) DVB-T2 MPEG-4-coded digibox, none of which are yet available, in order to watch HD versions of programmes you're already getting. And HD services will be available in some regions faster than others, depending on digital switchover date, and could take up to three years to reach your local transmitter. In the meantime, Grand Prix on-board camera shots and Robbie Williams have been unnecessarily sacrificed. Given that there are currently millions of Freeview sports fans and no Freeview HD viewers, it'll come as no surprise that a succession of BBC blogposts announcing the withdrawal have been besieged with angriness.

Never fear, say the BBC, because you can always view these lost streams on our website. The news headlines and weather forecast, they're online, as are all the sporting events and post-mortems no longer available on Freeview TV. Which is fine so long as you have a decent broadband connection and a computer and nobody else in the family is using it to check eBay or shoot aliens. For the significant minority of Britons still not connected to the web, many of them poor or elderly, the BBC website option is as blank as their TV screens. This is particularly galling when the rest of Freeview is still clogged up with rubbish like The Diamonique Hour and the 23rd repeat of Dragon's Den on Dave, but that's how it is.

This week's digital slimdown appears to be an ill-conceived strategic error, and a classic example of removing something before its replacement is ready. No doubt one day, when the entire nation is capable of viewing Jenson Button's wrinkles in full eye-watering close-up detail, we'll wonder what all the fuss was about. But in the meantime, the discriminatory message "Press your red button now (not available on Freeview)" is about to become depressingly familiar.

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