The BBC is extending its Backstage project to include interactive television. The aim is to provide support for third-party developers. The initiative, announced at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, will initially focus on the MHEG standard used on the Freeview digital terrestrial television platform in the United Kingdom.

The BBC Backstage project was originally aimed on online services. Although it has produced a number of interesting projects in two years of operation, few if any have made it beyond prototype stage into production.

The BBC is now planning to extend the initiative to include interactive television. The aim is to expand the talent pool of developers for interactive television by providing simple tutorials, code examples and releasing internal tools and tests.

The initial focus will be on MHEG. Some might argue that this should have been done years ago, although they might question whether MHEG is still the best standard to pursue.

An open ISO standard, MHEG was first developed in the mid-nineties but has not been widely adopted. It is currently only used in the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

With an increasing number of hybrid services, combining broadcast and broadband applications, there may be more opportunities to develop on the MHEG platform, which now includes support for a broadband return path.

The real problem lies in deploying applications to set-top boxes, which requires careful conformance testing.

What would perhaps be more useful is if the BBC were to document the proprietary formats that it uses to deliver data for its digital text service. This would allow developers to create new applications and services based on the broadcast services that the BBC already provides.

While there is comparatively little commercial interest in developing for the MHEG platform, it falls mainly to the BBC to maintain support for the standard. This will be particularly important if MHEG is also adopted for the proposed Freesat service, as seems possible. MHEG could be used to support the EPG application for such a service.

Proponents of MHP, which is based on Java, would no doubt argue that this would provide a more powerful platform for application development. However, having backed MHEG, the BBC must feel obliged to maintain any momentum behind the standard. Opening up development to a broader community can only be encouraged.