Teletext then… but now? 

24 May 2004

Mike Brown on the death of teletext.

When the BBC and ITV engineers developed teletext and launched it in 1974 they had produced an almost perfect product. It could be generated quite cheaply using a handful of computers, journalists and writers and cost next to nothing to add to the existing television transmissions.


It had been 10 years since the introduction of BBC-2, 7 years since the first appearance of regular colour and 5 years since its introduction to BBC-1 and ITV. TV set manufacturers and retailers, having grown used to innovation in the TV market, were ready for another initiative and got behind teletext, as did the TV companies.

Even the government got behind this entirely British invention. As well as being the country’s first instant ‘rolling’ news service, teletext also offered the first real opportunity for the programme makers to produce subtitles specifically for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, though these would not begin to appear regularly for several years yet.

Teletext’s real success, though, was that when the public saw it, they liked it and wanted it. The reason they liked it was because it was seen as a clear and obvious boon that everyone could appreciate and understand. Using the system was simplicity itself. You just pressed text and selected the easy-to-remember 3-digit page numbers.

Those who rented sets could change to a brand new teletext set for as little as an extra £1 per month on their TV rental, while those with ageing sets of their own could choose a new model with teletext for an extra £50 or so.

Once you had teletext you then discovered another useful bonus. The quality of the journalism was, in general, excellent. With each page consisting of just a couple of dozen short lines (around 900 characters) news stories had to be reported clearly and succinctly. There was no room for journalese or hype. This all came as a blessed relief from the rambling column-inches of newsprint and the seemingly endless speculations of the television news bulletins.

The amount of information carried by the teletext services increased rapidly, as did the number of viewers to the service. By 1978 BBC-1 and BBC-2 were each offering a Ceefax magazine of at least 100 pages each, while over on ITV, ORACLE had grown even more.

As the brand leader, the nature of Ceefax, in particular, was far more varied then than we have become used to in recent years. On Ceefax there were around 30 pages of news, with a similar number carrying financial news and a further 30 providing sports news and statistics.

The remainder brought us jokes and quizzes, recipes, farming news, film and record reviews, the week’s Top 40 and even a few test pages! All or most of these things can still be found on teletext if you look but over the years Ceefax has developed a more staid attitude, concentrating far more on hard news.

But of course there is far more to teletext than Ceefax. At one time almost every satellite channel had its own teletext services providing programme news and backup as well as an opportunity for viewers to write in with feedback or merely ‘chat’.

Although, slightly spookily, the Internet was also being developed in the mid-70s, the ‘net took considerably longer to reach people’s homes. Now that it has, does it render teletext, with its chunky graphics and ‘lack of interactivity’, obsolete?

That, as far as teletext is concerned, is the $64k question. Here in the UK, the broadcasters would seem to think that the answer should be an emphatic yes. The mainstream broadcasters are, without doubt, using the introduction of digital television as an excuse to drop a service, which they appear to see as a difficult and untrendy legacy of the previous century.

The Astra digital system is teletext-capable but the BBC has now more-or-less withdrawn their teletext service in favour of their new ‘digital’ service (as if teletext was never digital!) while ITV, as later entrants to this platform, haven’t bothered with it at all. Over on the troubled digital teletext platform the train left the station without any text on board at all – legacy teletext wasn’t possible and digital text was running very late.

When the Digital Text services did finally appear they were almost everything the public didn’t want. The higher quality graphics were slower to appear and regularly caused the boxes to crash or hang-up. The content of the services was skimpy, yet navigating around them seemed counter-intuitive and confusing.

The situation has improved somewhat with newer set-top boxes, and receivers with faster processors have also helped a little, but give a dog a bad name and the image is hard to shake off.

Broadcasters now see the Internet as the future and want a part of it so they are now concentrating most of their efforts either into their websites and money-making premium-rate telephone help lines. Digital Text is now seen merely as a convenient bolt-on accessory to their online presence, rather than being, as teletext was, a genuinely useful service in its own right. Practical economies are also a factor.

But the Internet need not usurp teletext. The causes of its original success are, in my view, just as valid now as they were then, but the trend is for broadcasters to drop teletext or at least reduce it to the level where its usefulness is negated.

Regardless of the relative rights or wrongs of each example, it’s rather like the shops killing off the vinyl LP and single in favour of the easier-to-sell CD. The recent acquisition, by Teletext Ltd, of the vacated VBI capacity on Channel 5 hardly bucked the trend as there is little or no new content being provided.

That Digital Text doesn’t rely on page numbers for navigation is a further nail in teletext’s coffin. How can programme makers refer viewers to Ceefax page 673 when it doesn’t exist on the digital equivalent? It’s far easier just to give out a website address.

Yet how much easier it would be for TV viewers just to press three or four buttons on their remote and get a screenful of information in seconds. Not every TV viewer has a computer or easy access to one, let alone a broadband 24/7 connection.

So teletext is dying, but come the inquest it will be seen, all too late, that it did not die of natural causes, and it will be much missed.

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