The governing body of the BBC has reviewed use of the red button interactive television service and concluded that while it has broad reach, audience appreciation could be higher and the relative cost of distribution should be reduced. The BBC spends nearly £40 million a year supporting the most used interactive television service in the United Kingdom, which is available through the red button on the remote control on digital satellite, cable and terrestrial television.

BBC red button services are reported to reach nearly 12 million users a week, around 30% of available users, including over 5 million that do not use the BBC web site. This represents a cost of 6.4 pence per user a week, which is lower than BBC online services where the comparable cost is 8.9 pence. The BBC Trust notes that “audience appreciation is moderate rather than high, and it does not achieve the same high quality scores as other BBC interactive services, such as BBC Online and iPlayer”.

Yet research by Kantar of 300 BBC red button users found 40% rated the service 8 out of 10 or above, compared to over 50% for BBC services overall. Only 9% gave it a low approval rating of 4 or less. Of greater concern may be the finding that after a decade of operation, only 71% of adults surveyed were aware of the BBC red button services, compared to 81% for BBC Online.

The total cost of BBC red button services in the last year was £39.3 million, slightly less than the cost of running Radio 1. More than £20 million of the cost of running the red button is spent on distribution to the different platforms. Nearly &pound14 million of this is the cost of distribution for enhanced television and multistream services. The Trust has called for a reduction of delivery costs and for the service to be made more consistent across platforms.

In practice that would mean reducing the capacity used to deliver up to six additional video streams on satellite and consequently on cable, although not until after the 2012 Olympics.

The review calls for the BBC to focus on the digital text service, which provides news, sport and weather, and on coverage of live events. The digital text services represent the majority of weekly reach, used by over 7 million people a week, but special sports events are also popular with viewers, with extended tennis coverage reaching over 7 million people over the Wimbledon fortnight.

The Trust acknowledges that the red button may play a role on new platforms such as YouView, but suggests that it is too early to say and notes that it may be entirely superseded by new services or technologies. It is clear that the budget for the red button will not increase to support IPTV services.

“Red Button reaches a large audience and is effective in helping the BBC promote some of its public purposes,” reported BBC Trustee, Diane Coyle. “It is not as popular as the BBC’s other interactive services such as the iPlayer, however, and its overall costs — particularly for distribution — are substantial. The Trust will therefore look to the BBC Executive to reduce costs when and where possible by focussing on the aspects of the service that are most successful to date.”

With the end of analogue television and teletext services in sight, the role of the red button in providing rapid access to news, sport and weather information services should not be underestimated or undervalued, even in a world of the web and mobile phones. However, the multistream services pioneered on broadcast platforms may ultimately be better delivered over broadband. That does not simply mean YouView, as other devices and displays become increasingly network connected, even for those with satellite and cable. Whether this means interactive services should still be accessed through the red button on a remote control is another matter.