There was public outcry when the BBC proposed the closure of its Red Button Text service. Instead, it’s now the TV manufacturers and platform operators that are calling time and pulling access.
As a result, the loss of the Red Button text service is just one TV or set-top-box upgrade away. Many of the TVs and boxes gifted this Christmas may no longer support Red Button text.
When the BBC announced in 2019 that it would close the text information service, campaigners supporting elderly and disabled viewers, plus those without online access appealed to the BBC to change its mind. In 2020, just before the pandemic hit, the BBC gave the service a reprieve, to allow it time to re-consider the potential impact. Later that year, the BBC confirmed the service was staying. However, the scope of the service was reduced, with fewer pages.
Since then, a growing number of devices no longer support the text service. The reason for the change is because device manufacturers and platform operators are choosing to no longer support the technology that unpins the Red Button Text service.
Red Button Text is based on a standard called ‘MHEG-5’. Since the launch of digital TV in the 1990s, interactive TV services, on-screen slates and messages, plus text-based information services have been powered by MHEG-5. Consequently, it became the natural successor in the UK to traditional teletext services like Ceefax. It was also unique to a relatively small number of countries worldwide.
Since 2010, a new way of delivering interactive TV and text-based information has gained popularity around the world with both broadcasters, platform operators and TV manufacturers. Known as HbbTV or Hybrid Broadcast Broadband Television, the new standard brings together online and traditional services.
Earlier this year, the DTG, who oversee the specifications for UK free-to-air TV services, mandated use of HbbTV in all new devices. Importantly, for the Red Button Text service, support for MHEG-5 is now optional for device manufacturers.
Red Button+ instead of Red Button Text
This change means viewers upgrading their TV may find that pressing red on BBC channels no longer opens up the Red Button Text service. In its place, the new HbbTV-based “Red Button+” service. This isn’t a like-for-like replacement. At the same time as proposing cuts to Red Button Text, plans to curtail Red Button+ proceeded. Following the closure of BBC News and Sports apps for TVs, Red Button+ is now effectively just a shortcut to the iPlayer.
This is contrast with some European countries, where HbbTV-based services are being used to replace traditional teletext services, with improved graphics and accessibility options.
Under pressure to cut costs by £1 billion a year, the BBC has opted not to follow the route of its European counterparts in replicating its Red Button text service on HbbTV. Meanwhile, UK commercial operators have long since abandoned teletext, with no intention of launching an HbbTV counterpart.
This means that once upgraded, there are no alternative options for viewers to access text-based news, business, sport and weather information on their TV in the same way as before.
On Sky, Red Button Text remains on older receivers only. Newer devices have been upgraded to Red Button+. Sky even unlocked HbbTV functionality on its SkyQ receiver to facilitate this, following a commercial deal between the BBC and Sky. (HbbTV functionality remains disabled in other countries where Sky offers Sky Q.)
Freesat is also migrating to HbbTV, with all new devices able to support the new standard.
BBC encouraging shift to HbbTV
The BBC, for its part, has been actively encouraging this technological shift. In 2016, it announced it was working with the wider TV manufacturing industry to “accelerate” the shift away from MHEG-5 to HbbTV.
This strategic decision makes it easier for the BBC to revisit Red Button Text’s future sooner rather than later. Reducing the scope of the service while encouraging industry to move away from MHEG-5, a move that gradually reduces the number of users who can access the service, ensures a future switch-off will take place without as much fuss.