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Icon of the month: Ceefax

Sarah Dean


In October, analogue television will be switched off in Northern Ireland, completing the digital switchover for the whole of the UK. This new dawn of better pictures, more channels and greater interaction marks the end of Ceefax.

The BBC began broadcasting its Ceefax service in 1974. For several years engineers had been developing a text transmission service to provide closed caption subtitling for deaf and hearing-impaired viewers.  Using the 'spare' lines of a television broadcast, engineers found they were able to send text files quickly and efficiently. Having proved that this process required no additional bandwidth and had no impact on picture quality, BBC executives decided to use the system to make other information available to viewers as text files, enabling viewers to 'see facts' - hence the name.

The initial service contained 30 pages of simple linear information such as stock and farming prices as well as subtitles and news. Within two years Ceefax had doubled the number of pages it offered which included a children's page and 'a shopping guide for housewives'.

As its popularity grew the BBC news department recruited staff to work solely on Ceefax's news output, recognising that the service was not just a complimentary add-on for its output, but an integral part of its current affairs broadcasting, available to viewers 24 hours a day.

By the early 80s, the growing use of teletext by TV stations around the world made it possible for correspondents with the right technical support to update their local system remotely. The BBC used this technology for the first time during the 1980 Moscow Olympics, when a BBC correspondent at the Olympic stadium put the day's results directly into the Ceefax system. Seconds later these results were available to viewers across the UK.

Making a change to a teletext page is fast, as the system does not require pages to be uploaded so changes are almost instant. Over the years Ceefax and its commercial siblings ITV Oracle and 4tel have often been the first place that news stories have broken, for example Ceefax was the first UK news source to confirm Princess Diana's death at 4am on a Sunday morning in 1997. However there have been problems with such an instant system.  In 1994 during a BBC news department rehearsal for the death of the Queen, Ceefax news pages were publicly updated with the news of the monarch's demise. These pages were taken down in 30 seconds, and an apology was posted, but several thousand people were thought to have read the story.

By the mid 90s there were 2.5 million teletext-enabled televisions in the UK.  More than a third of the population was checking teletext at least once a week and Ceefax was hosting 2,000 pages of content. Over on ITV the commercial broadcasters paid for their teletext services by hosting content from advertisers. Their most visited pages were Teletext Holidays, which before the internet were the best place to get a cheap flight or a last minute holiday.

The teletext system is not affected by the number of viewers accessing a page, so even as the internet began to take hold as a primary source for breaking news, Ceefax continued to play a vital role. During the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks online news sites crashed due to being overwhelmed traffic, at which point Ceefax became a reliable and up-to-the-minute source for both the public and broadcast journalists.

The bulk of Ceefax's content is already available via the Red Button on digital television. Sadly the Red Button pages won't be illustrated by blocky and at times indecipherable graphic illustrations, planned out on graph paper by computer programmers. But viewers no longer have to remember a random three digit number to access the information they require, and finding out football results won't require a nail biting wait for 24 pages to scroll round to the one with your team on it.

In the 80s 2,000 pages of information seemed overwhelming. Now a Google search for 'Ceefax' comes up with 557,000 results. Ceefax's time has come. There is a season, turn, turn, turn - except with Ceefax gone you don't have to wait 10 minutes for the page to actually do that.

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