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Goodbye Teletext

Robert Weedon | Television | Monday 1st February 2010

One of the less noticeable side effects of the 2012 switching-off of analogue television services will be the loss of teletext. Remember that?

Now looking like a relic from an earlier era, the blocky television-based text service was in some ways a forerunner to the internet, in that while it didn't allow a two-way interactive service, at the height of its powers teletext did offer continuously updating on-demand information services on subjects that one would now use the internet for - news, weather, TV listings, financial reports, cricket scores, cinema times and so forth. However, it was announced last summer that the service was due to be discontinued, and last month, at least on ITV, it officially did, leaving just a holding page full of holiday advertisements.

Teletext has its origins in two systems developed by the BBC and GPO Telephones (BT) in the 1970s:

The BBC system Ceefax (a slightly inaccurate homophone of "see facts") was first demonstrated in 1972 using the analogue picture as a carrier signal to transmit the data, which was then decoded within the receiver to show a full page of text. It also allowed the provision of closed caption subtitles and other on-screen displays. The BBC's demonstration riled the GPO, who had been developing their own system, and who swiftly announced the launch of their own rival to Ceefax - Prestel - which I will discuss later.

Meanwhile, ITV, not wishing to be outdone by the BBC announced its copycat ORACLE, or "Optional Reception of Announcements by Coded Line Electronics" to give it its snappy full title, which was quickly developed by the ITA for use across the ITV network. In 1974, the two broadcasters agreed a shared standard format for their rival services, and by 1976 both systems were launched onto an unsuspecting public. I say unsuspecting, because at the time most television sets were unable to view them. Indeed, it was only really in the 1980s that both systems came into their own when teletext became a much-desired extra on your television set, second only to having a car with rear view mirrors and a glovebox light.

The two systems steadily grew in influence, permeating the TV system via the little 888 which could be observed in the corner of the screen at the start of subtitled programmes. The infamous "pages from Ceefax" broadcast during early morning BBC 2 also gave the BBC a filler between Open University programmes and the morning schedule in the days prior to News 24, and the chance to sample some fairly bad, but strangely charming library music.

GPO's offering Prestel (Press Telephone), meanwhile, was rather more complicated than the television systems, being sent via phone line to early home computers or TV-based 'set top receiver boxes'. Launched in 1979, it wasn't a massive hit, at its height being taken up by roughly 90,000 subscribers. However, as a result of being attached to a phone line, it was able to send a crude early form of E-Mail - there was even a bizarre story in 1984 about how the Duke of Edinburgh's email inbox had been hacked, although quite what they found there has remained strictly classified. In a later development, it was also able to offer the first online banking services.

Despite these advances, Prestel never really caught on, mainly due to the extensive and expensive equipment required to view it, and later the service became primarily used by business, rather than domestic 'end users'. Discontinued in the 1990s, it now looks like an interesting forward-thinking forerunner to email, SMS, internet TV, set-top boxes and the like.

Back to teletext, and both bumbled along in their own cheerful way for the next few years, with ORACLE even having its own little text-based soap opera, Park Avenue. Then came the 1992 franchise renewal, where, like Thames and TV-AM amongst others, ORACLE fell victim to a new consortium led by the Daily Mail - the rather unimaginitely titled Teletext Ltd. The days of "paging the Oracle" were over, and unlike the false smiles and chilly valedictory remarks of the other outgoing broadcasters, ORACLE went quietly with a simple television listing for ITV stating "00.00...and now the nightmare begins!". How prophetic that oracle turned out to be...

Since 1993, Teletext and Ceefax have soldiered on, with a few innovations such as Fastext, which apparently loaded faster, some vaguely enjoyable attempts at 3D and a few memorable pages such as blocky cult character Bamber Boozle on the surprisingly difficult "Bamboozle" quiz on Channel 4's service.

Since the rollout of digital TV, Ceefax has migrated in all but name to the BBC Red Button services, which, in a nod to the past retains several familiar numbers and is also surprisingly slow to load. Meanwhile Teletext ltd itself soldiers on as a brand name selling holidays on a page everyone skips over on Freeview, but the news, sport and all but a few public information services, such as NHS Direct, have gone.

Ultimately, the advent of broadband internet was the death-knell for teletext, meaning that perhaps BT had the last laugh after all.

RW



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