Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

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By Kate Bulkley

The Guardian

Monday June 9, 2003

The BBC's revamped Ceefax service aims to simplify life for viewers with its one-button interactive service. But is it wise to meddle with the multi-button format and how will its commercial rivals react, asks Kate Bulkley

The relaunch of the BBC's Ceefax service could be of more significance than its low-key launch on Sky last week implies. Three decades after its debut Ceefax is the centre of a new "one-button strategy" for the BBC that will link its text, interactive TV, games and messaging services and could mark a watershed for the whole iTV industry.

Now, instead of pressing the text button on your remote and getting just that - text and only text - you will be offered a menu that links to all the BBC interactive content at once. Pushing the handset's red button will take the viewer to the same starting point, or so-called bridge menu. From there, more clicks allow you to access more detailed text services, video clips and enhanced TV services, literally whatever is on offer from BBCi's 24/7 team.

The new-look text and iTV service has raised a few eyebrows among commercial players from both the television and interactive publishing worlds. Some question if putting all their interactive services behind "one button" is the right way for the BBC to go. Others point out that slick new navigation puts the BBC itself in a prime position to potentially generate revenue from iTV and its many digital options, something that worries Beeb watchers who are concerned with how the public service remit is interpreted.

"The text button has been used by far more people for far longer than the red button so bringing them together is a bold step for the BBC," says Paul Zwillenberg, a director at OC&C Strategy Consultants. "The risk is they are bombarding the consumer with too much, and only time will tell if a one-button strategy is better than a two-button strategy."

The BBC defends its moves by saying that the revamp makes its iTV services easier to use, which is what public-service broadcasting is all about. Navigating with the BBC's text- and red-button services has been a bit like "playing twister with your remote control," admits Emma Somerville, BBCi's head of interactive and the architect of the relaunch. "Now whatever button you push, be it the red button or the text button, you come to the same place and all the information is there."

Among the new offerings will be on-screen video mosaics to showcase the various news and sports offerings. Viewers can then select what they want to watch on the full screen. New content, particularly in the entertainment and lifestyle areas, like cinema listings and what's-on guides, will be added to the near 4,000 pages of con tent that viewers access through the BBCi i-bar menu that, when activated, runs along the bottom of the TV screen. Later on this summer Somerville, who joined the BBC last September from Sky, plans a "catch-up TV" service and ticker tape-like services for football results and stock prices. These would appear as a moving line of text across the bottom of the TV screen. Messaging services are also a target for Somerville's team, with plans laid to add chat to programmes from Question Time to Crimewatch and Liquid News.

The BBC's new navigation system - which will be on Freeview this summer and cable next year - also postpones the so-called "blue screen of death" that typically appears when the text button is pushed and the viewer leaves the television environment. Of course, if you decide to delve deeper into BBC text services on news or weather, for example, you will eventually have to leave the BBC's new on-screen "bridge" iTV menu and go through a transitional page before the text services load.

Commercial rivals say that only the BBC can afford to build a navigation system where a third of the television picture is obscured behind its iTV services menu. "What do you think advertisers would say if half the advert they paid for was suddenly behind an on-screen menu?" says a commercial TV executive. The same might be said for certain programme-rights holders, who might worry that their programming is playing second fiddle to the iTV menu.

The executives at Isleworth do not share the BBC's one-button strategy for iTV. Sky pioneered iTV services with Sky Active and believes that the two buttons serve different needs. "Sky firmly believes that digital satellite is the leading platform for interactivity and we welcome other operators' moves in this area," says a Sky spokesman.

Sky News Active already boasts eight video windows versus the BBC's six-screen video mosaic and Sky pioneered vertical menus where you navigate by using only the up and down arrows on the remote control.

But it's Teletext Ltd that could be the real casualty of the BBC's relaunch. In the early 70s when text services began on television, Ceefax battled with the ITV-run Oracle text service. But in 1992, Teletext Ltd - whose major owner was and still is Associated Newspapers, publishers of The Daily Mail - was created to serve both ITV and Channel 4. And, in those early days, Oracle first and then Teletext held sway over Ceefax by offering more to the customer, including excellent commercial deals on holidays. Even today, Teletext Ltd rakes in 80m a year, largely because one in 10 Britons book their holiday via its text pages, and advertisers pay Teletext Ltd handsomely to get to that audience.

However, in the digital era, the independently owned Teletext Ltd has not forged any links with broadcast channels and has, therefore, been left behind, while Ceefax is available on all eight BBC digital channels and on all distribution platforms. Meanwhile, ITV, Channel 4 and Five are looking at developing digital text services for Freeview and satellite, and ITV plans to launch on Sky at the end of the year, with a single point of entry.

"Imagine every BBC programme with a call to action on every digital platform," says one observer. "It's gonna be massive." Some observers speculate that the souped-up Ceefax will become a proxy electronic programme guide for the BBC, working across every platform, from satellite to Freeview.

Meanwhile, according to one analyst, Teletext is one page short of a strategy. "Teletext is a declining asset. They've been kicking Ceefax's ass because in the analogue-TV world they're sitting behind the text button of the second biggest channel in the UK. When you lose that, you're screwed."

Teletext marketing director Marc Bell demurs, saying that his firm still has a weekly reach on analogue TV of 18.5 million viewers. Although he admits that "the issues" with Freeview and cable in particular have been "difficult", he says that the company is not sitting on its analogue TV laurels and has embraced the digital world by building up its website and launching dedicated Teletext channels on Freeview and satellite. But they are not behind the text button. "From a consumer perspective, if I were asked if it's easier to push one button or two to get to our service, I would say one, but the issue for us is how we can deliver that when there are different people in control of the broadcast streams," says Bell.

The BBC says that promoting digital Ceefax and all its iTV services will help the analogue switch off the government has called for. And, wags maintain, the BBC will be denied nothing (even the potential of making money from interactive services) if it keeps the nation on track to digital TV.


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