The BBC is dropping two of its three interactive channels on Freeview to make way for high definition services that will initially only cover half the country and will require new Freeview HD receivers. While digital television purports to offer viewers greater choice and better quality pictures, the BBC is cutting continuously available news, sport and weather bulletins and reducing the range of interactive services on Freeview. It is advertising the “spare capacity” and putting it out to competitive bid.

For many years, the BBC has transmitted a News Multiscreen channel of looping videos, covering news, sport, entertainment and weather, arranged in a mosaic with selectable audio streams. Although providing some pretence at interactivity, the broadcast nature of these services fell short of offering true video on demand and the picture quality was limited by the available capacity.

Two additional channels have also been provided on terrestrial television for other interactive services. The BBC has maintained a commitment to such interactive television services, accessed through the red button on the remote control. Sports events like Wimbledon and Formula 1 racing have proved predictably popular. They have also been used to provide additional coverage of events like the Glastonbury music festival and the Proms, but it has been less clear how much they add to coverage of events like the Chelsea Flower Show.

“As Controller of the BBC Red Button service, I have to look at what’s available for viewers on the service and balance it with the BBC’s full digital aspirations,” wrote Rahul Chakkara on the BBC web site. “This sometimes means I have to make hard decisions about what we do and what we can offer to our audience.”

The news of the changes prompted a deluge of comments on the BBC web site. The vast majority were highly critical of the decision.

The BBC News Multiscreen will disappear and there will only be one channel available for interactive sport, music or entertainment services for terrestrial viewers, while those with satellite and cable will have more options.

The change is required to allow the limited terrestrial capacity to be reallocated to accommodate high definition services under a plan introduced by the communications regulator Ofcom.

The BBC is advertising what it describes as “spare capacity” suitable for two linear television services available until the completion of digital switchover in 2012. If used in conjunction with “other capacity available commercially” it could support two national channels. An advert in the trade magazine Broadcast invites expressions of interest.

High definition terrestrial services will begin broadcasting in London and Manchester in December. By the time of the World Cup in 2010 up to half of the population will be able to receive high definition terrestrial transmissions.

Almost everyone will require new receivers for high definition terrestrial transmissions, even if they already have a high-definition display with an integrated Freeview tuner. Suitable Freeview HD receivers compatible with the DVB-T2 transmission standard may not be available until early 2010.

On demand
While the internet is in many ways better suited to delivering video on demand than a broadcast system, the general availability of video services that can be viewed on a television screen by the majority of the population delivers an important public service that should remain a core provision.

It seems incredible to some that while there is apparently spectrum available for numerous commercial channels of dubious distinction, the BBC is unable to provide its continuous news, sport, entertainment and weather video service on terrestrial television.

Although similar video services are now available on the web, the hope is that they will be delivered to the television screen through a new range of hybrid broadcast and broadband receivers.

As Peter Clifton, head of editorial development for multimedia in BBC News wrote: “TVs and set-top boxes are emerging in the market that are connected to the internet and we are looking at what exciting video services we could offer in the future.”

The BBC had hoped that its Project Canvas would have delivered a solution by now, but even in the event that it is approved it will be a year until compatible products could be available.

Clarification on syndication
The BBC has meanwhile published what it calls a “clarification” on its syndication policy.

“Today we’ve published new guidelines that outline how potential partners can syndicate our standard iPlayer product,” wrote Kerstin Mogull, the chief operating officer for future media and technology, in a statement on the BBC web site. “They also lay out the scope for our investment in customisation and bespoke development for larger platforms.”

Intriguingly, this text has been deleted and replaced with a “corrected” version: “Today we’ve published a clarification on where the BBC believes the balance currently lies between generating public value and value for money considerations.” Much clearer.

The full clarification is available on the BBC web site. It states: “To ensure best value and user clarity, one essentially similar high-quality content proposition will be maintained across platforms, allowing for rights and technical constraints.”

“The primary means for device manufacturers and platform operators to ensure that BBC iPlayer is available to their users is therefore through the standard products developed by the BBC for TV platforms and mobile devices. Any partner can create branded access points to these products. In order to ensure a consistent user experience, the option to self-build of iPlayer or iPlayer-like products is currently unavailable.”

The BBC says that it “will consider adjusting its standard iPlayer technology products for specific device families with an installed base of over 100,000” and “will consider bespoke development of iPlayer technology for specific device families with an installed base of over 500,000.”

That presumably includes Sky, with an installed base of 9.5 million set-top boxes, including over 1.5 million high-definition set-top boxes that will soon be broadband enabled. As a result we can anticipate a “bespoke development” that will allow them to offer the iPlayer programming as part of their platform.

Notably, the “clarification” refers to syndicating the BBC iPlayer, rather than programming, content, or assets, as originally described in the “On-demand Syndication Guidelines” which were published as stipulated by the BBC Trust.

No doubt the new policy is to support the project Canvas proposed joint venture, which is partly predicated on the premise that the partners will control the user experience.
As some have observed, a simpler solution might be to enable the syndication of on-demand programming in suitable standard formats, subject to conformance with relevant requirements.

Perhaps we can look forward to the streams from the News Multiscreen service being made available over broadband to compatible network connected devices and displays.