diamond geezer

 Thursday, September 23, 2004

Ceefax is 30

The BBC's pioneering interactive teletext service Ceefax began thirty years ago today. Engineers had worked out that they could piggyback extra data on top of the usual TV signal, and a very basic viewdata service was established on 23 September 1974. There were only 30 pages to begin with, and probably not many more viewers, but this really was the dawn of the interactive on-screen revolution. You pressed a button, typed in a three-digit code, waited a minute and you had the world at your fingertips. Well, 24 lines of up to 40 characters each, anyway.

It's sometimes hard to remember how little access we all had to information back in 1974. There was no 24 hour television, no internet and no mobile telephony. If you wanted to find out the result of a football match you had to try to catch the classified results on the radio, or else hope that the score was read out on the television news, or else wait until the morning to read it in a newspaper. With the advent of Ceefax you could find out the result minutes after the final whistle, and even watch the score update during the match. Gary Lineker once famously said that the best place to watch Wimbledon play was on Ceefax, and I for one agree.

My first interaction with Ceefax happened ten years after the launch at the home of a college friend whose family, even in 1984, were early adopters. I was so transfixed by the extra information being transmitted alongside the TV programmes that I almost forgot to join everyone else down the pub. My parents waited until 1987 to buy their first teletext-enabled set. It was the day of the Zeebrugge ferry disaster, at which time Ceefax should have come into its own, but we'd been supplied with the wrong remote control unit and so frustratingly could only access the index page all evening. I acquired my first Ceefax-able television in 1991 and, yes, it was worth the licence fee all by itself. Even today, should I ever find myself visiting some friend or relative living in an isolated non-broadband home, Ceefax still remains my best connection with the outside world.

Good old Ceefax - always there, always reliable... unless atmospheric interference has caused some pixellated gibberish to be broadcast instead. 20 million people still use Ceefax every week, despite its many limitations, attracted by a service that is comprehensive, easily accessible and regularly updated. It's still the first place many people turn for news, sport, weather, TV listings, travel information, lottery numbers, film reviews, share prices and even all the latest from the world of chess. Ceefax now contains as many as 600 pages, so you won't be surprised to hear that there's a special anniversary section included today (index: page 190), although you may be frustrated that you can't read it online.

But good old Ceefax now lives under sentence of death from the godawful service that is BBCi. I think we established back in January that, compared to Ceefax, this supposed technological advance is actually slower, less intuitive and generally more crap that its primitive ancestor. BBCi won't be worth using until engineers manage to introduce a method of accessing each individual page that isn't menu-driven... such as the three-digit code system introduced by Ceefax thirty years ago. Alas Ceefax will never reach its 40th birthday because the Government's analogue switch-off will have kicked in two years previously. I, for one, will lament its passing.

How many of the following do you remember?
Page 150: the pop-up newsflash
Page 160: the pop-up Alarm Clock
Pages from Ceefax: sometimes the only thing BBC1 ever used to show in the morning
Subtitles on page 199: first introduced in 1975, later moved to page 888
Telesoftware: downloadable BASIC programs for your BBC Micro computer (1983-1989)
Using the reveal button: often for quizzes or particularly poor jokes
Big chunky graphics: actually they're still there, aren't they?


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