Why Won’t Red Button Die?

Something sad in the world of new media made me think of Lithuania this week.  When the Russians invaded Lithuania in 1940, their Ambassador to the UK managed to transfer the title of their embassy to his own name so that they couldn’t expropriate it.  For the next 50 years the increasingly frail old man and his little team, opened up the embassy every day and literally kept the flag of Lithuania flying.  Most importantly, he would send out monthly press notices to let the world know he was still there, defying all those people who said that Lithuania didn’t exist.  In 1990 Lithuania regained independence. The new government came to London for a ceremony and gave the old man a medal. A proud old man with a tear in his eye had kept the flame of independence alive.

I thought of him this week when I got my monthly email from my friend at the BBC giving me the latest red button figures.  That afternoon I went to a TV conference and listened while various industry figures who should know better, discussed why red button had died.   There was embarrassed silence when I told them that over 4M people interacted with Glastonbury last month, 7M interacted with the World Cup red button service this month and another 4M interacted with Wimbledon.

Now you tell me any new media initiative that wouldn’t die for those numbers, but the TV industry is desperately trying to ignore them.   In the meantime my friend at the BBC will go on sending out press releases, defying all those people who say that red button interactivity doesn’t exist.

The odd thing is that we are now at the point where red button should be getting really exciting.  The TV companies are plugging broadband into the back of set top boxes like crazy, and the ability to use red button to bring up all sorts of web fuelled content is upon us.  But what do we get?  TV Apps.   Now lets be absolutely clear. The current generation of TV apps are crap.   Ignoring the fact that you have to turn broadcast off to use them, you can watch paint dry while they start up.  It’s like 1995 and the WebTV revolution all over again.  The problem is that the software industry doesn’t understand TV, and TV creatives don’t get software.

Future TV should be a world where you can move seamlessly from video to rich media and back again.   The only people who have ever come close to achieving this are the red button teams at the BBC and ITV.  Right at the point where we need them most, we are trying to deny their existence.

Project Canvas should be their moment.  However, even in the BBC there’s a sniffy ‘we are not having any of that red button nonsense in Canvas?’ thing going on. The development teams are tying themselves in knots to avoid the phrase ‘red button’ in front of senior management.  I heard someone say that they are going to be ‘using colour buttons to shortcut to VOD and rich media content’.  ‘Gosh how smashing’ said the ensembled bigwigs.  When the bigwigs had left the room I whispered in his ear ‘did you mean red button?’  ‘Yes’ he said, ‘but don’t say that in front of them’.

The phrase ‘red button’ appears to have lodged in peoples minds as a very specific, unsatisfying content concept.  For anyone who actually works in red button, it was only ever a call to action.  That ‘action’ could be anything fun that the set top box could deliver.   At some point in 50 years time our industry will rediscover TV interactivity and we will hold a ceremony from my friend at the BBC.  An old man with a tear in his eye who kept the flame of TV interactivity alive.

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