Press Red 

1 January 2002

We’re all too familiar with fast turnaround news stations. Headlines, a few stories in depth, a bit of business, a bit of sport, a couple more stories, then some weather, then back to the beginning again. It’s all fast moving, to the point, and in many ways quite predictable. You know what you’re going to get and more often than not at what minute around the hour you’re gonna get it.

But lately things have changed – or at least that’s the case on the satellite versions of BBC News 24 and Sky News. They’ve gone interactive.

Interactive is a bit of a grey area really. Many so-called interactive services you see around the world of digital TV these days are no more than glorified, over-hyped, low content teletext services with a bit of make-up on (who can forget ITV Text+?). It is not every day that you see something truly remarkable. Indeed I think it is our two broadcasters here – Sky and Auntie – that are the only two places I have seen any interactive service worth sitting up and noticing, and their news services are no exception.

Few channels are free from on-screen litter today and news channels are traditionally some of the worst offenders, but whilst being visually offensive, the “Press Red” banners we see are often a front for something a lot more exciting. I recently moved from the slower paced ITV Digital to Sky Digital and one of the first things I played around with was Sky News Active.

When you first enter it, you think you’re in the nerve centre of a supermarket’s CCTV security room with eight different miniature video screens in front of you and a menu of news stories. The idea is quite straightforward. In addition to a list of news articles (the kind which have been available on teletext news pages for decades) there are a series of video news articles played in loop ad infinitum.

Typically there will be a round up of the news headlines, the top story, a roundup of sport, financial or ‘Showbiz’ news, an in-vision weather report and perhaps some other feature – which late at night is usually a roundup of the following day’s papers. All of these are repeated over and over again until they are updated.

At first you’re typical reaction would be that it’s all a gimmick, and I must say that was my first thought but I have found the concept surprisingly useful. It is a happy medium between the teletext style of news watching where you read what you want when you want to and the television style where you sit back and effortlessly absorb articles in the order and length the broadcasters feel fit. This way you select what article you want to watch and then sit back and watch it, but in pictures and sound which makes it all that much better.

Of course, Sky News Active still has written articles and the service is structured in such a way that you can view your selected video in quarter-screen and in other areas of the screen navigate a list of articles and their related portions of text, thus allowing you to watch one of the eight news feeds and read a news article simultaneously.

News articles are subdivided into News, Sport, Weather and Finance. Not as many categories as the BBC but its articles in each section are plenty and quite long. Longer than BBCi’s news articles or what you’d typically get on traditional teletext services.

There even news tickers running along the bottom of your screen and viewer polls where Sky try to talk you out of 25p of your phone bill through the often strong desire to put your opinion across!

In general, I think Sky have done very well here and provided a service that is quick, simple, straight forward yet very effective. The BBC haven’t let Sky get away with this lying down though, and BBCi – the new name for anything interactive to do with the BBC – has its own answer.

The BBC have had what was originally called BBC Text since early on in the history of digital television. Originally on terrestrial only and later on satellite too, BBC Text’s news isn’t dissimilar to that of Ceefax – the BBC’s old style teletext service’s contribution.

Like Ceefax and the BBC’s award winning News Online, it has more sections of news than Sky, dividing its stories into World, UK, Politics, Sci/Tech and so on. One criticism of BBCi News I do however have is that the articles are too short – typically 75-100 words in length compared to 200-250 words in length on the Sky News Active articles.

This is my main disappointment with the BBC’s contribution, mainly because the BBC have a whole host of brilliantly written and quite lengthy articles living on the their web servers yet we’re stuck with Ceefax sized news portions on a platform where the rivals have proven you can write a lot more.

The Beeb also have multiple video screens in the same way Sky do, although the BBC have three less than Sky with only five. They are used for much the same purposes; rolling news channel itself, headlines, sport, weather and an interestingly named feed called “screen five live” which features some of the BBC’s more in depth news reports such as Hardtalk and newspaper reviews – all in glorious quarter-screen.

Recently I even saw part of an episode of Panorama, which, when happening upon by chance, got me hooked into viewing the quarter-screen service for about twenty minutes.

But I have to ask – is all of this useful? Is it necessary? There are many that are quite content with half-hourly news bulletins on stations such as BBC-1, ITV and Channel 4 without any need for rolling news stations at all. Is this taking it all one step too far and giving us news overkill?

I personally think not. What we’re getting is not more news but just a different way of accessing it. In my opinion, if you’ve enjoyed news articles on teletext or regularly visit a news website then you’re going to like these interactive services and the video choices are no exception.

I often find myself getting most of my news from TV and press websites and I only generally look at designated news stations when browsing or flicking over when some other station is showing adverts. This way I can see what I want of what TV news has to offer when I flick and not what happens to be showing and being able to combine my controlled reading of articles with video is nice.

So which of the services do I think is best? Well it is a hard call as both provide an excellent service, but I would have to go for Sky News Active. Whilst in general I think BBCi’s interactive services have the edge over Sky’s, I have to say Sky have the edge over the Beeb when it comes to News.

They have just the right number of news screens, the layout is nice to combine text and video and the articles are the right lengths for a modern day text service. The BBC on the other hand cuts its articles down too short – which is less forgivable when you know that the BBC produce a brilliant news website with proper length articles as good as a newspaper.

Also the video screen service comes over as more of a bolt on to an existing news service on the BBC and isn’t as fully integrated with the text as is the case with Sky – although the BBC’s finance and weather sections have to beat Sky’s as they are designated sections of BBCi and not part of the news.

Nevertheless, I feel we must not loose sight of the fact it is very early days. Thus far Sky and the BBC are the only people to really embrace such futuristic projects and both have a long way to go to improve on what they already have. It is their progress in the next few years that will be the most exciting. And perhaps our quarter screens will go full screen.

I was a bit doubtful at first but I must admit it didn’t take me long to get drawn in and find myself attracted to what was provided. For those of you who that haven’t checked it out or feel you don’t need all this extra malarkey (and I am sure there are many of you) I recommend you give it a try. Of course, you’ll have to remember what colour button to press.

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Liverpool, Monday 22 April 2024