The Red Zone

10 February 2021

What sounds like a video codec, but isn't? Why, it's MHEG-5. There were a lot of expert groups in the past... Anyway, this standard allows rich, interactive content to be delivered to your TV. Its functionality is very similar to the kind found on DVD menus and DVD games.

It was adopted as a replacement for analogue TV's teletext services in many parts of the world. Instead of blocky text and graphics, full colour pictures and smooth fonts were possible.

In the UK, the BBC created what they called the "red button" service as the replacement for Ceefax. It "puts you in the driving seat," as the promotional material used to say. And it was more than just Ceefax 2.0. On various programmes, you would be invited to press the red button on your remote to show you a menu of extra content, or sometimes whisk you away to a different video entirely. I watched backstage footage of the Eurovision Song Contest in 2003 this way. Sporting events would show different angles or games. Using the red button soon became the convention across all channels that carried MHEG content.

Main menu. UK news index.

The BBC Red Button menu and news index. ©BBC 2012.

Teletext (the company) didn't take to digital quite as well. They used two discrete channel numbers, one for the regular content (news, weather) and one exclusively to sell holidays. Their most popular content - Bamboozle, Digitiser/GameCentral, MegaZine etc. did not move to digital for years. I do believe they turned the digital service off before they lost the analogue licence! Teletext Holidays, although gone from TV, is still alive on the web though.

My first Freeview tuner was a Goodmans GDB-1. It was SLOW. Really slow. Changing channels took about 5 seconds, and MHEG applications needed a minute to load. It still felt superior to "analogue" teletext, in that the whole article would load at once. You could take your time to read it.

Some channels only broadcast MHEG, like shopping channels. Radio stations often have a basic interface to say what's being aired. Years ago, there was a neat interface where you could change radio stations from within the same shared application. These days they only broadcast a station logo. Broadcasters were a lot more imaginative in the early 2000s, but with widespread web access, there's not much point spending time on TV interactivity.

Kisstory radio logo screen. Classic FM radio logo screen.

©KISS 2021, ©Classic FM 2021.

Last year the BBC decided to discontinue the red button service. They were looking to cut costs, and usage has presumably dropped. It's a shame. The BBC contibuted a lot to the MHEG standard, and hosted a variety of interactive content all throughout the 2000s. They also donated a lot of software to the public domain.

Nowadays, the BBC's teletext content is barely maintained. It's just a basic mirror of the website content - news, weather, sport, and travel. It's much like how they ran Ceefax towards its end, admittedly. According to the file "lastbuilt", the main MHEG application hasn't been updated since the end of 2008.

2008-12-17 16:41:06 (localhost)j008-12-17 14:41:14 - nav.des

The number of items in the main index has certainly shrunk, mind, with children's content definitely missing.

The BBC were persuaded not to axe the red button, for now at least. It is still used by quite a lot of people who are unable to access the Internet, and remains very accessible. Text content has been broadcasting alongside pictures on TV since the 70s, so taking that away seems alien. Furthermore, it is unclear exactly how much money would be saved. I have no idea of the internal processes of the BBC or their overheads, but the content displayed is created elsewhere. No new MHEG applications are being developed, so... aside from perhaps one person who could keep an eye on it, I reckon the total saving would be small.

As for historical preservation, I am sad. We are very lucky in that classic teletext was recorded onto video tape. It is theoretically possible that most of the pages ever broadcast will be recovered and preserved. For MHEG applications however, we won't be so lucky. They aren't saved on video tape, nor DVD, and are usually demuxed from streams on HDD recorders. Only MHEG applications that were dumped at the time exist today, and that's not anywhere near as common as recording to VHS. The small number of currently broadcasted services are almost not worth saving.


For now though, here are some more screens from the past that I saved.

Cbeebies Tubes game introduction screen. Tubes gameplay.

Simple games were possible. Here, the objective is to fill the tube with insects. ©BBC 2012.

Red Button help menu. Is the text service closing? Unfortunately, yes. From the 30th January 2020, the red button text service will no longer be available.

The original notice of intent to close the red button down. ©BBC 2019.

BBC North Red Button Team 2016. Red button developer credits.

Hidden developer credits. ©BBC 2016.

QVC Active main menu. Hot Pick: Vodafone 354 with case and credit.

A shopping catalog. Who wants to buy a phone? ©QVC 2012.

Welcome to Channel 100 - the home of Freeview information. Where to get retune advice.

The Freeview basic information and help channel. ©Freeview 2021.

365 Travel main menu. Complete index of destinations.

365 Travel. Teletext Holidays used to play a selection of easy-listening music, at a lovely 64kbps. ©365 Travel 2021.

TVX introduction screen. PIN entry screen.

Television X put MHEG to good use. The channel would initially load an MHEG application. Upon entering the correct PIN, it would direct your set to the PID of the actual video. ©Televison X 2012.

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