Ceefax service closes down after 38 years on BBC

 

How BBC Northern Ireland viewers saw Ceefax say goodbye after 38 years

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BBC Ceefax, the world's first teletext service, has completed its final broadcast after 38 years on air.

Before Olympic champion Dame Mary Peters turned off the last of the UK's analogue TV signals in Belfast, a series of graphics on Ceefax's front page disappeared down to a small dot.

The Plain English Campaign earlier gave Ceefax a lifetime achievement award for "clarity" and use of "everyday words".

And ex-Prime Minister Sir John Major said Ceefax would be "much missed".

Sir John, who has previously revealed that he regularly checked Ceefax pages between Downing Street meetings to keep up to date with cricket scores, said: "Ceefax will be much missed. At moments of high pressure - with little time for detailed examination of the news - Ceefax headlines offered an instant window on the world.

Fond farewells

  • Gary Lineker (via Twitter): I see Ceefax has finally been put to rest. How on earth can we watch Wimbledon now?
  • Nicky Byrne (Strictly contestant, via Twitter): When I was named in the Leeds United 1st team squad v Southampton in 1995 aged 16 my mam & dad recorded the story from Ceefax!!!
  • Pete Clifton (Ceefax editor 1996-2000, via MSN): I'm mourning the death of an old friend, increasingly slow, creaky and made of Lego blocks - but despite outward appearances, a significant force behind some of the whizziest news services in the UK today.
  • Adam Shergold, via Mail Online: "I always admired the reporters who managed to mention every goal in a 4-4 thriller within the confines of four pixelated paragraphs."
  • Lee Walker, Eurosport: "Today marks the death of Jeff Stelling's electronic stepfather."

"From breaking global news to domestic sports news, Ceefax was speedy, accurate and indispensable. It can be proud of its record."

A few weeks after Ceefax provided coverage of its 10th and final Olympic Games, Lord Coe added his own tribute by saying: "Ceefax has been an invaluable news service for every sports fan over the last 38 years.

"I have checked in on many a sports news story, track and field triumph and, of course, Chelsea results!"

Ceefax was launched on 23 September 1974 to give BBC viewers the chance to check the latest news headlines, sports scores, weather forecast or TV listings - in a pre-internet era where the only alternative was to wait for the next TV or radio bulletin to be aired.

Its premise was to give viewers free access to the same information that was coming into the BBC newsroom, as soon as the BBC's journalists had received it.

Ceefax had initially been developed when BBC engineers, exploring ways to provide subtitles to enable viewers with hearing problems to enjoy BBC TV programmes, found it was possible to transmit full pages of text information in the "spare lines" transmitted on the analogue TV signal.

Ceefax in the news

Roy Essandoh
  • In 2001, Roy Essandoh (above) became an FA Cup hero thanks to Ceefax. He read a plea from injury-hit Wycombe for players and got the winner in a quarter-final tie against Leicester
  • Bruce Rioch found out he had been sacked as QPR assistant manager when he read it on Ceefax
  • In 1999, Glenn Hoddle's daughter Zara wrote to Ceefax to back her father when his job as England manager hung in the balance
  • Early in his TV career, Gary Lineker said viewers would have been better off watching the first half of a Wimbledon match on Ceefax
  • In 1994, a newsflash was briefly broadcast on Ceefax during a rehearsal saying the Queen Mother had died. The BBC apologised to her.

The BBC then appointed veteran journalist Colin McIntyre, its former UN correspondent and chief publicity officer, as the first editor of a news and information service which was broadcast using the same method.

It was called Ceefax, simply because viewers would be able to quickly "see the facts" of any story of the day.

McIntyre initially updated 24 news pages on his own, feeding punch tape into machines, before recruiting Ceefax's first eight journalists.

Initially the service was a minority interest, with just a handful of Ceefax-capable TVs in the UK, but it slowly started to gain popularity and the engineering team that developed the service was honoured with a Queen's Award for innovation.

But the real impetus for viewers came when BBC Television decided to use a selection of Ceefax pages, accompanied by music, before the start of programming each day. Initially called Ceefax AM and Ceefax In Vision, the Pages From Ceefax "programme" continued for 30 years, being broadcast overnight on BBC Two until this week.

As viewers got a small taste of what Ceefax had to offer, millions of Britons during the 1980s invested in new teletext-enabled TV sets which gave them access to the full Ceefax service, which by now included recipe details for dishes prepared on BBC cookery shows, share prices, music reviews and an annual advent calendar.

Its audience peaked in the 1990s when it had 20 million viewers who checked the service at least once a week. Since the launch of the National Lottery in 1994, dozens of jackpot winners have revealed that they first learned their life had been changed when they checked their numbers on Ceefax.

The BBC's Points of View programme looks back at Ceefax's 38 years on air

But the launch of the UK's TV digital signal, and the announcement that the analogue TV signal would disappear in a staged switch-off over five years, meant a slow withdrawal of Ceefax, ending with the final broadcast in Northern Ireland.

BBC Northern Ireland and UTV screened a simulcast reviewing the era of analogue TV, and then Dame Mary Peters - 1972 Olympic gold medallist in the pentathlon - pressed the button to change the television landscape.

The hour-long special programme, The Magic Box, was hosted by Eamonn Holmes.

The show was billed as a nostalgic celebration of "the best of Northern Ireland television over the past 60 years".

Speaking as he closed the simulcast programme, Mr Holmes thanked viewers for watching and said: "Here's to the next 60 years."

At the very start

The early days of the service proved anything but hi-tech.

Ceefax journalists would monitor incoming wire copy and when a story was to be updated they would type at one of two production terminals and create a Ceefax page.

Then, they had to produce a punched tape - approximately a yard long - and take it down two flights of stairs to the Central Apparatus Room, load it into a tape reader and watch as it was read into an anonymous metal box called a core store which actually transmitted the pages.

A walk back up to the sixth floor followed and if, at that point, it was discovered that a spelling mistake had been made, the journalist had to go through the whole process again.

It ensured close attention to detail when writing!

Dame Mary described the role of switching off the last analogue transmitter, at Divis Mountain in Belfast, as "a great privilege".

Viewers who checked Ceefax during the evening saw a special graphics countdown on page 100.

And weather presenters on the BBC during the day paid their own tribute by incorporating Ceefax's Lego block-style maps into their forecasts.

Ceefax's commitment to getting information to viewers as quickly and clearly as possible has been marked by the lifetime achievement award from the Plain English Campaign, the pressure group that calls for the use of concise and clear language in all public communication.

Founder Chrissie Maher said: "Ceefax helped everyday people with everyday words and I will be giving it a Chrissie Maher Award for its 30 years of commitment to using plain English. It was my first port of call."

She added: "It helped the public keep in touch with world affairs and everyday information with its crystal-clear communications. I will miss its clarity."

Steve Herrmann, editor of the BBC News website, said in response: "Throughout its distinguished years of service to audiences, Ceefax has always aimed to provide news which is clear, concise and simply expressed.

"It is an honour for us to receive this lifetime achievement award, and it stands as a tribute to all the journalists who have worked on the service over the years, and the care they have taken in writing every story."

Ceefax journalists in 1981 and 2012 The technology has changed over the years and Ceefax is now produced at New Broadcasting House

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey said: "Ceefax revolutionised the way in which the public accessed information. Its peak audience of 20 million viewers is testament to the regard in which it was held - its cessation a reminder of how quickly technology is now progressing."

Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader and shadow culture secretary, said: "Ceefax is a great national institution, and it's sad to bid goodbye to a service which gave so many access to news, sport, TV listings and much else besides.

"But with the end of one era comes the start of another as the digital switchover is completed - people can access more channels, and interactive services which are the successors of Ceefax."

Highlights of final pages from Ceefax

 

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  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 49.

    Goodbye old friend,

    May the red button service one day be improved to give us the same diverse mix of news, lifestyle, entertainment,sports coverage & political debate that the old service gave us.

    I know we have the internet, but the ludite in me likes the old service.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 48.

    Bamboozle is now an iOS app for nostalgics like me! Sadly, they didn't incorporate an eternal time delay while you wait for the next question to appear, a la Ceefax! :-)

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 47.

    The final "Pages from Ceefax" music was "BART" (Bay Area Rapid Transit) by American rock band "Ruby", headed by Tom Fogerty. The track was a regular in the late 1970s during intervals between schools programmes on BBC1.

    Technically, there's no reason why Ceefax could not have continued. All Sky receivers and most Freesat receivers can insert the teletext signal into their video output.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 46.

    Ceefax was great in it's day and has set the standard for the reporting technology we have in place today.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 45.

    Greatley missed. Exceedingly difficult to understand why it can not continue. Surely current technology could cope. Sadley the current offering of the written word cannot compare to CEEFAX.
    I do not need a news reader, just the simple fax, then I can make up my own mind.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 44.

    Yet another goodbye and TV goes down market a little bit more. Yes, digital gives us more channels but does it really give us more quality? Hundreds of channels of repeats, imports and cheaply made rubbish, all overlaid by adverts, "coming up" announcements and graphic overlays of all kinds.

    It seems that the digital revolution has only one loser - the viewer.

    Bye, Ceefax. You shall be missed.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 43.

    Ulster Television ran a Hobbies and Holidays exhibition at Belfast Kings Hall in the early 70's. We displayed Ceefax on the stand, and a couple arrived one afternoon both were very deaf. Imagine their delight as I explained Ceefax to them, they could now read the up to date news, sport and other information. They were absolutely delighted.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 42.

    I've not used Ceefax for twenty years but today I miss it.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 41.

    Ending Ceefax has been a disaster. I've tried all this red button nonsense and I'm just not prepared to wait an eternity to find what I want.
    Having given it a try, I now have no interest whatsoever in trying to read this new digital text, it's like it doesn't exist for me, I doubt I will ever try again. We've replaced something that worked great with something that is totally useless.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 40.

    Beautifully simple to use for the 1st time user & even better for regular users who could just go straight to the pages they wanted quickly (if time was not on their side). The red button brings so much to BBC digital & yet seems slower for things like 341 - cricket scorecard, or 304/305 Nott'm Forest score, 601 BBC1 listings...at least some of the page numbers will live on via the red button!

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 39.

    I use to love Ceefax (and Teletext), being able to get news any time of day before the dreadful opinionated rolling 24 hrs news channels. It was also good for insomnia looking at things like flight arrivals and then of course classic games like BamBoozle on C4 Teletext too. Still use the text function on digital but takes longer to load than old Ceefax!

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 38.

    I wrote a very tongue in cheek letter to Ceefax suggesting that pensioners, far from getting free tv licences, should pay more for their licences as they were in the house to watch television more than the working age population.

    It achieved the desired effect as there was a string of stroppy letters from pensioners for days afterwards.

  • rate this
    +65

    Comment number 37.

    Ceefax was a stunning piece of technology in its day. and surely eased many of us in to the concept of on demand 24 hour news.

    It w@s als0 fun wh3n the s1gnAl w ent a bit d0dgy and y u st ugg ed to re9d what w@$ b31ng sa d.

    Also when you didn't hit HOLD on time and missed the end of the paragr

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 36.

    Digital text isn't as good as Ceefax for the simple reason that the pages take too long to load.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 35.

    Personally I haven't been able to see it for years (it's grim oop north etc).

  • Comment number 34.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this
    +9

    Comment number 33.

    I still miss it even with the internet. Playing Bamboozle, reading the entertainment and interview pages. It was also a lot less biased or sensationalist than news web pages. Goodbye Ceefax and thank you.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 32.

    The nice thing about Ceefax was how easy it was to get top-level information without information overload. OK, the page changes were sometimes labouriously slow when compared to current web browsing speeds. Wouldn't it be a great idea to have Son of Ceefax, a simple website with just the top level information, presented in that unique compact and succinct Ceefax format that so many of us loved?

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 31.

    Yes it will be sadly missed.I use to drive my wife up the wall constantly looking at the football scores.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 30.

    22:
    Holidays adverts were on Teletext(ITV Service) not on Ceefax (BBC Service)

 

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