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

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.

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...