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CEEFAX – THE DADDY OF DIGITAL

Before the Internet and the World Wide Web, there was Ceefax.

Humble in origin and deploying relatively simple technology, the BBC’s Ceefax service nevertheless transformed the landscape of news and information.

For decades Ceefax – together with ITV’s rival teletext service – was our only widely available source of constantly updated 24-hour news, sports and weather bulletins.

Instantly recognisable for its simple typeface and chunky graphics, (a anathema now in a world of high-tech TV special effects), at its height Ceefax was watched and used by tens of millions of viewers – including many a Prime Minister – every week.

The service offered more than just news and sport, though.

Hundreds of pages were devoted to everything ranging from financial data and cookery to games and travel updates. My own favourite was a regular ‘surf update’, which was put together every week by a resident BBC surfing addict (and journalist) in Cornwall.

After 38 years of broadcasting countless teletext words and stories, Ceefax finally came to a close last week when the UK’s last remaining analogue TV signal, in Belfast, was switched off.

Revolutionary service

Ceefax has, of course, been gradually disappearing from screens across the country over the past year, as part of the national digital switchover.

The service was launched in September 1974, with the aim of providing BBC viewers with simple news, sports and TV listings updates on their television sets.

Its inception was as much by accident as design. BBC engineers, experimenting with ways of providing subtitles for programmes, discovered that it was possible to transmit full pages of text using ‘spare lines’ within the existing analogue TV signal.

After a slow start, Ceefax finally took off when the BBC began to broadcast its Pages from Ceefax ‘programme’ on BBC2 overnight, accompanied by what can only be described as some of the finest cheesy music (an official CD of that music was at one time even produced).

Demand for Ceefax quickly picked up, and with it a new array of TV sets able to receive and display a teletext signal.

Before long pages 101 (news headlines) and 301 (sports headlines) were as widely watched as many of the nation’s favourite TV programmes.

Breaking News

For newspaper journalists like me, Ceefax was also a means of getting into the BBC.

At the peak of its influence, and before the inexorable rise of the BBC News website, Ceefax employed hundreds of newsprint journalists trained in the art of writing news quickly and succinctly.

This was necessary as a standard Ceefax news story, designed to fit a TV screen, had room for only four short paragraphs of text.

Headlines were required to fit the full length of the screen (filling 33 characters) and it was a point of pride for any Ceefax journalist that this could be done at speed – and often under pressure.

In fact, speed remained a cornerstone of Ceefax even as its digital successors gradually overtook it.

Ceefax’s breaking news ticker (page 150) was often the first BBC outlet to actually break news, if nothing else because the text format was so simple and the older technology supporting it more reliable.

I never stopped being impressed by the fact that the second you published a story on Ceefax it was instantly accessible to millions of viewers across the country.

Of course, Ceefax’s instantaneousness could also have its downside. Rumours abound of the occasional monarch or movie star incorrectly (if only temporarily) ‘killed off’ by reporters eager to get the story out.

‘Window on the World’

Through all its years of broadcasting, Ceefax commanded a hugely loyal, and influential, audience.

Former Prime Minister John Major recently told the BBC: “At moments of high pressure – with little time for detailed examination of the news – Ceefax headlines offered an instant window on the world.”

Amid such a strong sense of ownership of Ceefax by its viewers, editors meddled with the service at their peril.

One former editor I worked under often recounted the time he received death threats from viewers, after he’d pushed through a radical redesign of the sports pages.

In many ways, Ceefax also pre-empted the interactive nature of the social media age in which we now live.

Its popular letters pages, for instance, played host to regular contributors outlining causes, ideas and views not unlike modern day chatrooms or blogs (albeit chatrooms heavily monitored by BBC editors).

At its heart, Ceefax’s offering was a simple one – instant access to news and information courtesy of basic text and blocky graphics.

But its legacy was much greater than that. Ceefax showed us how hungry we were for up-to-the-minute data, and how willing we were to interact with others in a shared digital space.

In that respect, it was way ahead of its time.

(Jon Cronin is joint head of Lansons Live. He was a BBC News journalist for 10 years, including two years as a City reporter for Ceefax)