The BBC’s Ceefax text service closed down yesterday after 38 years on the air. The world’s first teletext information service, Ceefax began broadcasting in 1974 and provided everyone from insomniacs to prime ministers with the latest headlines and sports scores at a time when the alternative was waiting for the next news broadcast. Now, as the BBC switches from analog to digital broadcasting, the low-resolution service has been retired for good.
According to the BBC, 38 years and one month after its first transmission, Ceefax closed down just before 1972 Olympic pentathlon gold medalist Dame Mary Peters switched BBC Northern Ireland from analog to digital broadcasting – completing a five year switch to digital. Its last message in familiar blocky letters was “Goodbye from all of us at Ceefax 1974 - 2012.”
Ceefax, which stands for “see facts,” began life as a project to provide captions for the hard of hearing by using the “spare lines” or empty bandwidth left over in analog broadcasts. It soon developed into a very low resolution text and graphics system that featured news and sports headlines, stock prices, weather reports, recipes and even an advent calendar in an interactive format. Despite it’s notoriously slow page presentation and never being able to write more than four paragraphs at a time, it had 20 million viewers at its peak.
In some ways, the ability to show only a few words at a time was a blessing for the editors of Ceefax. Though advanced for its time, the early technology for compiling Ceefax pages was very labor intensive and required the editors to write out the pages on punch tape before walking down several flights of stairs to post them.
At first, the service needed special sets or adapters, but the BBC also took to transmitting Ceefax pages in the off hours accompanied by elevator music when there were no programs, which made them familiar reading for night workers and insomniacs. By the 1990s, Ceefax decoders were standard in televisions sold in Britain and the interactive features were more widely accessible.
The passing of Ceefax is also the passing of an age when being able to see headlines of breaking stories and getting the weather forecast on demand was like something out of the future. We now live in a world where the latest information on anything from world events to showbiz trivia is no further away than a smartphone, but Ceefax at least hung around long enough to get hacked, so maybe it wasn't such a relic of the 20th century after all.