/ Technology

Freeviewers! Press the red button to miss out on the Olympics

There’s no doubt that the BBC has pulled out all the stops with regards to its Olympics coverage, but I think Freeview red button customers are missing out.

Last weekend my husband and I were at my brother-in-law’s house. He’s been well and truly bitten by the Olympic bug and was showing off how, via the red button, he could choose from a slew of sporting events.

Excited, my husband raced home and clicked our own red button. It presented us with a measly choice of three events – one of which was already showing on BBC Three.

Maybe we needed to retune, as per the message that had flashed up earlier this month? We tried, but it made no difference.

Red button limited on Freeview

So I turned to the web for answers and soon found we weren’t alone in feeling short-changed. Website Shetlink, for example, has a forum discussing this where member Radiohead had posted the following message:

‘There is only limited access to Olympic venues on Freeview (aerial). On the other hand there are 24 special Olympic channels on Freesat in both standard digital & HD and of course on Sky… So much for the digital switchover on Freeview (aerial) that cost us licence payers £600 million!!’

On further investigation, I discovered a possible explanation in a blog post about sport coverage via the red button, which explains that the BBC will begin to broadcast sporting events in HD.

Good news for sports fans but – as I discovered – bad news for Freeview customers. The post explains that in order to do this there will be ‘a reduction in the amount of capacity on Freeview for our interactive services’.

Whereas previously the BBC has provided two additional video streams on the red button, ‘With the arrival of HD, one of those red button streams will be going from Freeview, so unfortunately this will limit the number of choices we can offer,’ says the BBC’s blog.

Cable and Freesat viewers unaffected

The changes only apply to Freeview and not to cable or Freesat, which explains the breadth of choice available to my brother-in-law who is a Virgin cable customer.

To compensate, Auntie Beeb explains, it will be moving more sports coverage online and offering extra coverage on other digital channels such as BBC Three. That’s OK then? Isn’t it?

Actually, it’s not. I agree with others online who argue that as a TV Licence payer I should be able to get access to the same coverage as anyone else.

Not to mention the fact that on its homepage Freeview’s website boasts that ‘The best bits of telly are free for everyone and free forever’. Is it now the case we only get the best bits if we’re prepared to pay?

What do you think? Is the red button delivering a gold service for you or has it failed to make it through the heats?


I’m not sure that the BBC are obliged to provide interactive red button services on Freeview.
After all, surely the name “Free View” implies that it’s free to view channels which have been made available to the service, not “Free to use all channels and interactive services”.

People that have Cable, FreeSat or Sky, are either paying for those services on a subscription basis, or have paid for the box to provide the service.
FreeView is generally free in terms of hardware for most people now, as it’s built into pretty much every TV set, just like an old analogue tuner used to be.

I don’t think that the service from FreeView can be expected to match other services which are paid for. If that were the case, I’ll have Sky Movies for free please!

Well FreeSat is FREE too. So with 24 additional BBC HD Olympic channels on FreeSat, it supports Which? in saying that FreeView viewers are being short-changed.

The answer is to switch to FreeSat which has better HD quality than FreeView.

Phil says:
8 August 2012

That bloody red button. I get fed up of it hovering in the corner of the screen and there’s rarely anything worthwhile behind it (the Olympics may have been an exception).

Just push the green button to get rid of it but I wish the BBC would dump it for good.

Thanks for that tip Phil – I share your annoyance and did not know you could undisplay the red button.

I agree, especially as you can access the ‘red button channels’ directly anyway. They are always there, even when not broadcasting anything extra. The Beeb could just list them as additional channels and scrap the red button.

I’d also like them to move the on screen captions too. Most digital viewers have wide-screen TVs and those captions should be banished to the extreme left and/or bottom of the screen: why waste the screen real estate and mask the action. The number of times captions have masked the view in F1 is becoming irritating.

Isn’t this simply about available terrestrial digital TV bandwidth versus the rest (cable, G3, G4, internet & satellite)? Freesat and Sky etc have 24 BBC HD and 24 BBC SD Olympic channels dedicated to covering the Olympic Games 2012. Freeview just can’t compete with that and it will never be able to compete with those other services now that an allocation of digital spectrum will be made available at auction for a 4G phone network contributing £3 billion to the UK economy.

People who are getting the 24 additional channels are paying a premium (i.e. a subscription) for the right to have those extra channels. I think the BBC’s coverage across all platforms has been very good.

If you have a strong enough Internet connection then you can stream it all online anyway.


Dave says:
8 August 2012

I have a Sky PVR with a subscription and a Freesat PVR which I purchased from Humax. I have High Speed Broadband from BT for which I pay. I benefit from anything that is available free on the internet therefore, including coverage of the Olympics.I have not paid anymore for the additional 48 channels covering the Olympics in HD & SD. They are provided without charge therefore. Owners of Freeview PVRs or Tuners built into TVs were always going to be at a disadvantage due to the limitations of the terrestrial broadcast system.

@ Dave

Not true. FreeSat is FREE. All 24 HD Olympic channels are FREE on FreeSat. We don’t pay anything other than our standard TV Licence fee.

The reason is that the terrestrial digital bandwidth is full despite there being 60 odd channels available. This is because the terrestrial channels have to be carefully allocated across the UK in cells so that adjacent cells don’t interfere. On terrestrial FreeView, there are hundreds of transmitters broadcasting BBC1 HD across the UK. On FreeSat, just one single channel broadcasting BBC1 HD which all FreeSat and Sky views can receive.

Robert C says:
9 August 2012

I agree with the energy badger and Dave, there is a difference between what is free and what is a subscription service (cable), presumably the BBC has a lot of channels to offer to other countries as it is our job to cover the Olympics. Hopefully what they pay helps the BBC do the whole job, and choose the best for us.

Shortly before the Olympics my TV flashed up a message to retune the Freeview channels to get better coverage, I did and could get a couple on the red button.
If you want 24 channels – get Freesat. A glance at the Which report shows that Panasonic TVs have the tuner so all you need is the dish installed.

It is true that Freeview has limited capacity (bandwidth) and so adding 1 more HD will take away one of the spare channels that they use under the red button. So long as they provide a good choice on the main 4 I’d be happy – and during the Olympics that was bound to dominate. Not all programmes need HD (news from afar), but many are worth it (drama, nature, F1) It is time BBC HD was renamed to BBC2 HD, since the best programmes should be on BBC2 and in HD anyway. I value quality over quantity. (there is plenty of duplication already and the BBC should stop this – try Breakfast TV: 3 different weather presenters in 30 minutes and the 2 on the sofa frequently show 2 more presenters on News 24)

I can see what a lot of your saying – and there’s no getting away from the fact that the BBC’s Freeview doesn’t have those red channels because the technology can’t support it (though it is a pain that an HD channel has removed one of them!).

However, if it’s BBC taxpayers who are paying for all these different red button channels to be made, and they’ll only see them if they pay an extra subscription, then it doesn’t sit quite right with me.

But you don’t have to pay an extra subscription to get the extra channels, they’re available on Freesat

“You pays your money and you takes your choice” ! Clearly the easiest upgrade path from analogue to digital TV/Radio was always going to be Freeview as it used your existing aerial. It provided all the existing channels plus quite a few more for a single one off box payment. Freesat does cost slightly more to get unless you already have a satellite dish. Maybe an ex-sky customer wanting the ability to record. (The used sky+ box only allowing free to air (FTA) channels to be viewed no recorded) With many freesat boxes (view or record) you also can see transmissions from non-freesat members. So if you want everything that is free to air with only a one off payment it has to be freesat.

Sarah to answer your original question – What do you think? Is the red button delivering a gold service for you or has it failed to make it through the heats?

The answer is clearly that the red button process has failed to deliver but the BBC has made a choice about HD v SD and chosen quality over quantity for two channels based on limited bandwith. Those viewers who can not see the difference between a High Definition broadcast and a Standard Definition one will feel agrieved at the loss of some SD channels. Those that want as many HD broadcasts as possible will be satisfied to a limited extent by the compromise that had to be made and not just by the BBC.

From time to time I have alternated bewteen SD and HD on Freeview but the SD picture is so good on our Samsung TV that I cannot detect any improvement with the HD channel. Is something not quite right, or are we just lucky to have good reception? It’s the quality of the content and commentaries that disappoint so often.

@John Ward

Something is not right. HD is VASTLY superior to SD. Either the program you are watching is only being broadcast in SD or is of very poor quality or there’s something wrong with your TV. Note that it is still the case that not all programs broadcast on HD channels are in true HD quality, though the majority on BBC HD are so. Some broadcasting is still done using SD cameras that are up-scaled and reformatted from 4:3 SD to 16:9 HD.

2011-08-08 09:11:19. says:
9 August 2012

It’s all about bandwidth…you’d think the Computing Editor would know that!

Is she playing devil’s advocate?

I hope so.

I agree with Dave, “you pays your money…”

Freeview is the bog standard for the masses product. It has poorer picture quality than the satellite offerings, which is why I chose Freesat.

John – You should definitely easily see a difference between a SD or a HD transmission particularly on a Plasma, LCD or LED screen. More difficult to perceive a difference on a CRT television surprisingly! Anything that moves should be particularly better in HD, racing, football etc. You must be using a HDMI, DVI or component cable to achieve the necessary quality.

2011-08-08 09:11:19. says:
9 August 2012

My experience would suggest that people who use corrective lenses have difficulty in seeing the difference between SD and HD. My wife couldn’t see any difference until she recently underwent laser surgery, but even now, for her, it is marginal.

Robin Lacey says:
9 August 2012

Interesting comments made. Unfortunately we are left with no option despite being the first area to go digital ( Whitehaven) we find that because we receive signals from a relay station we have a limited freeview and digital radio selection so are left with no choice but to subscribe to satellite broadcasters. As a result we pay full license fee for less than half the channels available elsewhere in the country!

Dave says:
9 August 2012

Robin if you have chosen to subscribe to satellite broadcasters (SKY?) presumably you did so to get even more access to programmes at a premium. A one off payment for a freesat box would have given you access to all UK channels you pay for by the licence fee.

Dave says:
10 August 2012

Freeview and Freesat set-top boxes: Freeview and Freesat digital TV Free digital TV

Freeview and Freesat services have no TV subscription fees

Types of digital TV service

You have two options when it comes to choosing a digital TV service.

Free services from Freeview and Freesat allow you to have a digital TV service without signing up to a contract or paying a monthly fee. If you just want a basic TV service and aren’t interested in premium channels such as Sky Sports and Movies, a Freeview or Freesat digital TV service may be ideal.

If you’re after a wider range of channels, you’ll need a subscription TV service from Sky, Virgin or BT. These TV services have a monthly fee, but allow you to access premium channels. For more information on costs and packages available see our guide to cable TV, satellite TV and digital TV packages.

For more help on working out which type of digital TV service would be best for you see the Which? guide to free TV and pay TV services.

Freeview vs Freesat

Freeview includes a basic line-up of around 50 digital TV channels from BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Five, Sky and Virgin. It’s by far the cheapest digital TV service, with Freeview set-top boxes starting from around £20.

Freesat offers more channels, with around 70 available. This doesn’t necessarily mean you get a better line-up – channels including Dave and Sky News are available on Freeview, but not on Freesat. You’ll need a satellite dish if you don’t already have one, which will add around £80 to your start-up costs.

Freesat from Sky is an alternative free digital satellite TV service. With more than 200 channels, it offers the most TV, but, like Freesat, it doesn’t include all the Freeview channels. You can’t get HD services with Freesat from Sky and there’s no choice of set-top box, so you can’t get a PVR to record programmes.

Freeview and Freesat TV equipment

Lots of manufacturers make Freeview and Freesat equipment, so there’s a wide variety to choose from depending on what you’re looking for.

If you don’t need a new TV, the simplest option is to get a freeview or freesat set-top box. Prices start from around £20 for the more basic models.

More advanced set-top boxes allow you to record, replay and even pause live TV. These boxes are referred to as personal video recorders or PVRs. You pay more for the added benefits of a PVR, but this could well be worth it if you want to record programmes to watch later.

You can also get TVs with Freeview or Freesat built in.

See the Which? LCD and plasma TV reviews for test results on the latest models.

Get 50 regular and four HD channels through your aerial

HD TV from Freeview and Freesat

Freesat was originally the only free TV service to broadcast live content in high definition (HD), but Freeview HD is now available to around half of the UK population. You’ll need to make sure you have an HD-ready TV and the right HD equipment, though.

Freesat HD equipment A number of Freesat HD set-top boxes are available, with costs starting from around £60 for the cheapest HD box. HD PVRs start from around £200, so you can also record programmes in high definition.

Freeview HD equipment Humax launched the first Freeview HD set-top box in February 2010, but there are now many other models on the market. TVs with integrated Freeview HD are now also available from all of the main TV manufacturers, including LG, Panasonic, Sharp, Sony and Toshiba.

Existing HD TVs with Freeview (not Freeview HD) built in will not be compatible with programmes broadcast in high definition, because a new compression format is being used to fit the HD broadcasts on to the service.

Great, but why not just give a brief mention of the information on the Which? website and give a link to the page?

Yes, best not to copy and paste the whole page.

If your links are relevant and useful, happy for you to post them Dave. However, they’ll sit in our pending queue for us to manually check their OK and not going to anywhere dodgy. Thanks.

Dave says:
10 August 2012

wavechange – I was unable to post the link, presumably because it is against the rules to do so on this site!

Sorry about that. I may be wrong but I think I have seen others post links to pages on the Which? website. There is a delay before any message that contains a link or email appears because these are checked by the mods.

Hmmm. I have Virgin because local terrestrial reception was and is poor – My problem is that directly BBC broadcast the 24 additional Olympic channels which I don’t watch anyway – The program information available for most other channels – especially the radio which I listen to happily – have been seriously curtailed – It is now so bad I will be changing my subscription unless it improves after the Olympics which thankfully ends soon. All I need to find is an alternate free or cheap method of receiving Animal Planet and Crime and Investigation – Any Ideas?

Can you not edit your display listings in you box or TV setup options? I’ve never found such a device that doesn’t let you add/remove channels from the listings.

Terry – It is not adding or removing programs but the info about them that is now missing – The problem is before the appalling Olympics channels were added – the program info via the info button was limited but did give an brief outline of the program on screen by pressing the Info button on the Remote Control. Now the ‘information’ on screen is limited to “no program information available” for all digital radio stations – or very curt information like “Drama” rather than a few lines. This is not true for all programs just the ones I want to watch – So it “works” but extremely limited. So effectively useless. So will be changing the subscription unless it improves. The only channels I really can’t get elsewhere are Animal Planet and Crime and Investigation – So anyone know if the NetFlix system will supply such programs as so far cannot find a complete list of programs NetFlix can supply.

You ask “Is it now the case we only get the best bits if we’re prepared to pay?”
I do not see how this can be the case …. remember that Freesat is, as its name implies, free, and gives what I find to be a good, comprehensive service.
Personally I don’t understand why anyone should bother with FreeView when FreeSat is available.

What a load of nonsense this piece is. I have the 24HD channels and 24 SD channels FREE on my Freesat equiped TV (there’s a reason it’s called Freesat, because it’s free – gettit?) Sure I paid for a TV with Freesat (and Freeview) built in but it has always been obvious there would be more choice on Freesat.
There just isn’t enough bandwidth on Freeview to be able to broadcast all those channels (though I admit they could get rid of some of the rubbish like the shopping channels).
So it’s not the BBC choosing not to put those channels on Freeview, it can’t be done.

Freesat is not expensive to get, so instead of criticising the BBC – which offers far better quality programmes than all the others – just buy it and get the benefits. Don’t newer tvs have a built in freesat tuner – so just £80 for a dish – that you can use for Sky etc? Not much compared to the cost of your telly and a Sky subscription is it?

Snowdin says:
10 August 2012

I can confirm I have had a mainly problem free and entirely subscription free Olympics using Freesat on the south coast. The red button has worked superbly as described though events have not always run at the described times. The picture quality has far out-performed the quality of commentary and interviews.
My only problem has been woodpigeons and jackdaws which appear to be addicted to roosting on the satellite dish, freezing the picture, every few minutes during the most important events. If anyone knows of a satellite dish that incorporates a motion triggered foghorn and water jet please let me know.

Lottie says:
10 August 2012

I’ve had more trouble with them moving things from the channel they have said they were going to put it on than not enough things under the red button. The tennis was supposed to be on BBC3 so they said on Sunday mornings breakfast programme. Then I discovered it was going to be on BBC HD which was great until I missed the start as I was waiting for the sailing to go off on BBC HD and when it did not I channel hopped and then it was found on BBC 1. The TV book which was printed over a week before said it was going to be on BBC 1 but I thought the presenters on the breakfast programme must have a better knowledge, as it was on the actual day. They keep saying there is no need to miss the action but some people don’t have the internet even now, and if you had set it to record and gone out on Sunday afternoon, you would have come home to sailing and not tennis. Also the BBC app for smart TVs has not been working for tennis but not sure about other sports. It has worked for live broadcasts, but the catch up section just says not available so as there has been so little tennis on normal TV channels the catch up service should have been working. I have been told by the BBC that the coverage will be on line until Jan so at least that gives us all time to watch what we have missed, but I’m not sure how useful that will be as with sport it is not so exciting when you already know the result.

grumpy old git says:
11 August 2012

as you say, ‘ some people don’t have the internet even now’
Quite. and you can bet that a lot of those people are old age pensioners,often lonely, isolated by
our youth obsessed (un)caring society, and confused by ever expanding tech.speak.
How casually we are told it is so important to ‘shop around’ for the best ‘deals’ from energy
suppliers in order to avoid getting ripped off. How do you shop around without the internet?
The fervour and extreme emotion, excitement,tears and euphoria engendered by the Olympics
reminds one of the excesses of Ancient Rome when scheming Emporers and Politicians spent
lavishly on Games and Spectacles to distract their subjects from corrupt misgovernment.
The only thing missing in the modern version is the grand finale of christians being thrown to the lions,which could have been the thrilling closure of the Olympics,substituting old age pensioners for the christians (thus solving the oft heard question ‘with people living longer, How are we going to pay for Care for the Old?)
Great Britain?

@ Grumpy Old Git

Perhaps we should substitute Christians with Grumpy Old Gits?

The disparities of ‘Shopping Around’ is not an Internet phenomena: back in your good old days, if you lived in a big city and wanted a new sofa, you would shop around the furniture stores and find the best offer. If you lived in the country or a small town or village, you got what was available.

Internet ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is only the same disparity.

grumpy old git says:
11 August 2012

Mr Farrell
If you don’t see the difference between shopping for a solid 3D object and having to shop for a
service for basic needs, the purveyors of which constantly change the goalposts, you’re not very
bright,are you? My condolences.

Just moved to Cooperative Energy with the Which? move saving me approximately 2 months cost over previous ‘best buy’ supplier.

I know that as a genuine GOM you have probably forgotten but in the days prior to the Internet there was only one piped-gas supplier (British Gas). So there wasn’t any shopping aropund to do for energy.

(BTW I am a genuine GOM too. You can see my team site on the Adventurists website where in 2007 we took part in the Mongolian Rally and our team was called ‘Grumpy Old Men’.)