The end of a real page-turner

It was the information superhighway of its day – but thanks to the internet, Teletext's days are numbered
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Jones family can get hold of stacks of information on pretty much anything, very quickly. Mum and dad want news without deadlines, today's sports results today. The children demand the latest music reviews and gossip. From football scores to cheap holidays, film reviews to horoscopes, everything is at the click of a button. And they're years ahead of the game – for in the case of the Jones family, it's 1980. And it's not today's internet that they're using, it's the multicoloured, many-paged Teletext.

An incredulous reporter from the American magazine Video Action describes them as "an average British family with a not-so average television set". They are pioneers of a whole new way of living; they are a "Teletext family" revelling in reams of data displayed in an easy-to-read, chunky font that was once cutting edge and is now endearingly retro.

It is one of the more bathetic truths of technology – that hope, promise and a sheen of newness almost always end in neglect, obsolescence and rust. Teletext is like Paul Daniels: we forget how much we used to like it. It can be casually dismissed in the current age as an Eighties throwback, all risible graphics and deadening waits for pages to load. It is still alive, but it's in its death throes: the BBC's Ceefax, as we have known it for more than 30 years, will have its life-support machine deactivated in 2012. Its ITV counterpart, which 10 years ago employed dozens of reporters, feature writers and sub-editors, is effectively being terminated in December. From information superhighway to cul-de-sac: how did it come to this?

Teletext is, was, a peculiarly British phenomenon, although it subsequently went global with channels across the world broadcasting their own versions. The idea was ingenious: the TV signal is larger than can be shown on a screen, and therefore has unused space. Experiments began in the 1960s to broadcast data in this space; by 1974, the BBC was ready to start test transmissions for the public. Ceefax – yes, it really does derive from "See facts" – was born, powered by a mini-computer. Edwin Parsons, a BBC archives preservation expert, explains that, "Ceefax was developed to provide subtitles for the deaf and it was designed by BBC engineers. It went live on 23 September 1974, with a magazine of 30 pages, and it was the first teletext service in the world." A year later though, along came ITV's version, Oracle (Optical Reception of Announcements by Coded Line Electronics). The digital era, the information age, had dawned.

But there was one problem. No one could receive this digital bounty. No decoders had been made; only home electronics enthusiasts, who crafted their own reception equipment, could read it. Decoders slowly appeared on the market, but were initially prohibitively expensive – another technological truth is that early adopters bear the brunt of high prices.

Somewhat poetically, the saviour of Teletext was to be a fellow anachronism, the rented television. Consumers, perturbed by the high one-off cost of a Teletext-enabled set (they cost up to £740 in the 1970s), could afford the new technology by spreading the charge. By the end of the decade, most British TVs were rented, causing Teletext uptake to spread rapidly: by mid-1979 there were 20,000 receivers in the UK, rising to 100,000 a year later.

But this still represented only 1/2 a per cent of all television-watching households in the country. More needed to be done. So, desperate to be seen as modern, the Thatcher government declared October 1981 National Teletext Month. Publicly-funded leaflets and flyers appeared. Kenneth Baker, then the minister for information technology, described it as an "an exciting new medium", exhorting the public: "don't miss out". Teletext was "one of the most important developments since the invention of television itself" and "will soon become an important part of your everyday life", official literature claimed.

And so Teletext began to grow and grow. The BBC started overnight broadcasts of pages from Ceefax, backed by chintzy music. With the public appetite thus whetted, Teletext TV ownership rose to 1.5 million in 1983, hitting two million in 1984. From its initial 30 pages in 1974, Ceefax now had 600. A cartoon bulldog was employed to tell ITV viewers to "page your Oracle", which was billed as "the ultimate newspaper".

Teletext was now so popular, its readers were influencing government policy, rather than vice-versa. Hundreds of thousands of Oracle's nine million viewers joined "Save Oracle" in 1990, a campaign that forced Home Office minister David Mellor to withdraw proposals to remove a requirement for an ITV text service. The creation of the national broadcaster, subsequently backed by the government, was now of the people.

Oracle's relief was short-lived, however. It ceased broadcasting on December 31, 1992, having lost its franchise. Its replacement would bring unprecedented popularity to the medium – but also accelerate its demise. It shared an owner with the Daily Mail and would be called Teletext.

Suspicious viewers were won over quickly. Although still blocky, it looked brighter and bolder. Its comprehensive news and sport service was complemented by a wealth of feature sections, including some short-lived "adult" pages broadcast after 10pm. (Teenagers seeking teletextual titillation were disappointed, however; one of its first pieces was about the sex life of Bob Monkhouse.) Arguably Teletext's greatest success was its Channel 4 offering. Awash with cultish but credible content, it drew a loyalty and devotion hitherto unknown to the medium. Bamboozle led the way, a quiz played with the coloured keys of the remote control – an oddly engaging experience for millions. The gleefully-profane Digitiser and arty teen mag Generator also drew audiences broad in size but exclusive in feel. They were Tiswas to Ceefax's Swap Shop and helped swell Teletext's readership to 17 million a week by 1996, four million ahead of its rival.

Then there was – and still is – Planet Sound, an authoritative, informed and sprightly read from its Pixies-referencing name onwards. "There were certain press officers who wouldn't take teletext seriously", says its editor, John Earls. "But one PR said to me that, in any band, there is one member who is a Planet Sound fan."

"Whatever happens in the telecommunications field, Ceefax will benefit." So predicted its editor, Colin McIntyre, wrongly, in 1980. Usurped by the internet and digital television's ubiquitous red button, the end of Teletext – and analogue TV itself – is nigh. The ITV and Channel 4 service, on which Bamboozle and Planet Sound remain, will be reduced to adverts in January. But a former Teletext employee believes it need not have ended this way. "Teletext could have rivalled BBC Online if they'd put more resources into it back in 1999," she maintains. "They ploughed too many resources into digital, but ignored the internet."

Ceefax is dying more slowly; it will continue until the analogue signal is shut down in 2012, but its five million readers are outnumbered three to one by red-button users. Decrepit and anachronistic it may be, but old-school Teletext retains its devotees. Among them is Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers, who once led the band out of Bono's hotel in disgust at its lack of teletext. The Clash's Mick Jones is a fan, as is Guy Garvey of Elbow. And many others, like civil servant Rob Walker, 29, will always remember it fondly: "I once watched a whole snooker match on Ceefax. Nigel Bond needed two snookers to win – I couldn't tell that on Ceefax, of course."

"I'll really miss it", says teaching assistant Bethan Williams, 18, of Chester. "I'll have to use the internet instead, but it's not the same." Scientist Farah Aladin, 28, from London, concurs: "I'd sign a petition to save it. It's just not right on digital."

Another of Colin McIntyre's prophesies of 1980 was that "Ceefax will still be there and useful in the 21st century". Remarkably, he was just about right. Enjoy it while you can.