The end of BBC Red Button – some personal thoughts

Published on 17 September 2019 in , , , ,

Yesterday the BBC announced it would be closing its red button text services.

I suspect many people will have read the news and gone “it was still there? Surely no one still uses it?” But very early in my career I went to some user testing. There I sat watching someone trying to use a website. And everything I thought was blindingly obvious about that website, they struggled with. That has always stayed with me. Never assume people are like you. There will be many people who are not like you. So when I read the news, I knew there would be people still using it. People who use it every day. People who will be disappointed by the news. Perhaps even angry.

But BBC Red Button means a lot to me. For I worked in the team who built that service for eight years between 2003 and 2011.

I joined with the curious job title of “Assistant Development Producer” working in the 24/7 team. There were two teams in what we then called Interactive Television. 24/7 did the Ceefax-esque services, and anything that was available all the time. eTV did anything programme related. Things like quizzes for Antiques Roadshow, stuff for sport, things like that.

There were ten Producers in the 24/7 team. A figure that I find quite stunning now. I’m not sure how there could have been enough work for us all. There were three senior producers, who each had one ADP and one ‘Development Producer’. Except for one guy who – for a while – had two DPs.

Before joining the team, I’d been a web developer. But a couple of people had seen something in me, and had gently nudged me in a different direction. A direction of what we’d now call Product Management. It took me a couple of goes to actually make it. These days in the BBC, if you want to make a move from one job family to another, they are very supportive. Placements and mentoring will be organised. But back in 2003 the only way in was “dead mans boots”. A vacancy had to arise, and you had to pass the interview. Almost always you’d be up against people who had a lot more relevant experience than you.

The tale of the successful interview would be a blog post in itself. But I got through it and arrived in 24/7 knowing nothing about the technology, nor how to do the job I was now doing. And I spent the first year or so with major league imposter syndrome, and not convinced I’d made the right call.

In time, I got to a place I was comfortable. Where I was enjoying my job. And getting good at it. I rose through the ranks. Became a Development Producer. Thanks to some short term special projects funding, got to put Senior in front of my job title. And then got booted back down again because management decided they wanted to “restructure” the department. My promotion had never been permanent. So they closed the role, opened a different one. Interviewed me for it. And gave it to someone else.

I made some good friends. I worked with some brilliant teams. With some exceptional people. Went to the wedding of two of my wonderful colleagues. Saw another two get together, and later marry. There was an American whose mum had had the same sour-dough starter for fifty years. There were pandas. And for a while I worked with someone whose “hobby” was as a sex-blogger.

I learned how to deal with awkward people (we had a couple). Once, how definitely not to deal with awkward people. And I worked with many, many brilliant people.

I learned Agile Software Development. I learned how to do clear documentation. How to handle multiple stakeholders. All who had their own differing views and priorities.

I learned how to prioritise backlogs. And how to try and do the best for our users despite the fact that we knew next to nothing about them nor what they did. We had no analytics at all. Red button was (is) broadcast. TVs and set top boxes didn’t have any internet connection at the time. We had to put things out there and hope for the best.

I got to work on a huge range of products. News. Sport. I worked on the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Alas, from London. I got to write lots of blog posts. And did lots of children’s related projects. Oh I loved working on CBBC and CBeebies stuff. My colleagues in the Children’s department were a lot of fun, and always a delight to work with.

Of course over eight years, it wasn’t all good. And truthfully, I had never intended to stay that long. When I got booted down from Senior Producer, I was not at all happy. It was a step down. And instead of developing new skills, I was rather treading water.

But it came at an awkward time. The 2009 financial crisis meant that other jobs were scarce. I had a secure job, but I one I didn’t want any more. And there was no route out.

I was rather stuck. A big blocker was that people hiring often only saw “red button”. They wanted web skills. Or mobile skills. What they didn’t see were the other skills on my CV. You can learn technology. It’s the easiest part of a new job in my mind. I have spent the last four and a half years working on personalised recommendations. What did I know about recommendations before that? Nothing. I learned it. What did I know about TV technologies before I took that job in 2003? Naff all. I learned it.

What they needed was someone who could come in and do the stakeholder management. The requirements gathering. The prioritisation. The ability to work with developers to get their products right. All that was on my CV. Quite clearly put. But I was told several times the fact I didn’t know the world of “web development” was a problem.

Of course I did finally leave. I left Red Button land in June 2011. The team was being moved to Salford and I decided not to. There were no jobs internally to move into, so I took a redundancy cheque and wondered what the hell to do next. It took me some time before I pieced it all together. And then for someone to spot that I had a lot of valuable skills, and that they should hire me.

As I write I realise it was as long ago that I left Red Button, as I spent in that team. Things have changed so much since then. But I have so many happy memories of working in that team. And it was where I developed and honed my skills. The skills that form the foundation of my career to date. And of the people. So many brilliant people, many of whom I’m still in touch with now. And want to keep in touch with for years to come.

BBC Red Button may be coming to an end. But it’s influence on my life will last forever.

There’s quite a lot of posts about interactive TV elsewhere in this blog. Because I used to write more about work than I do now. And I had some pieces on the BBC Internet Blog too (it’s now the Technology + Creativity Blog.) Most oddly though was that period where the powers that be let me pretty much post what I wanted, when I wanted, on BBC Red Button’s own blog, Press Red. Should you want to do any more reading…