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
    +1

    Comment number 189.

    This was entirely awesome and it offered pages of excitement for BBC Micro A-ers and BBC Micro B-ers. I never did get a modem then, but I still looked at the pages of code that I could've downloaded! (Ok call me a spod and swat if you want!).

    I don't know!

  • rate this
    +20

    Comment number 188.

    Very often it was the only thing on TV worth watching.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 187.

    A big thank you to all who brought us Ceefax

    - and to the Red Button Team who have taken time and care to blog during DSO (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/bbcinternet/red_button) and will continue to do so.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 186.

    Is that chap on the left using a Commodore 64?

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 185.

    Used to love CEEFAX - hainba, thanks for reminding me about the Advent Calendar, I was an avid fan of the daily reveal.
    Still get most of my daily news in similar fashion - via the red button while eating breakfast

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 184.

    As a keen sports fan I have fond memories of watching the Australian Grand Prix on Ceefax during the 1980's- sounds weird but it was one of the most exciting evenings I've ever had. Every quarter lap a list of the positions and timings was posted and was greeted with loud cheers of friends watching as Mansell started closing on the race leader.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 183.

    Always loved the goal flash pages on Saturdays when all games were played on Saturdays! Bit irritating for the rest of the family though with the constant pressing of 'x'...

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 182.

    I have happy memories of spending school lunch breaks in the Careers Library watching in awe the "enormous" amount of information now available at the push of a button. The internet may be faster and wider reaching but that is missing the point. An electronic calculator is more advanced than an abacus, however, that does not mean that the abacus was not the best tool available at it's time.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 181.

    I was a fairly early adopter and used Ceefax and Oracle extensively. Although the Internet has largely taken over and is more immediate given its availability on mobile devices, the replacement services on digital TV are still generally inferior. Why the BBC never finished the job of putting page numbers on BBCi I don't know - now it will never happen and we will be left with the mish-mash we have

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 180.

    Although Ceefax is obviously from a different age, much of the information readily available at the touch of your remote was easier to get to quickly that the new 'red button' system. For example, the financial summary page 200 had all the basic information on one page that you needed e.g. the FTSE, £/€, £/$ and Dow Jones positions are now on three or more separate pages. So much for progress!

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 179.

    Ceefax and Teletext, I forgot about those!

    Working out a way to cheat on BamBoozle on Teletext and impressing my friends with my "knowledge."
    Forgetting where the hold button was EVERY TIME I needed it.
    Waiting through 9 pages to get what I wanted, missing it because I talking.
    Entertainment news, all in a few lines.

    It was good when I was a kid. I'm thankful for the Internet instead though.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 178.

    Ceefax was fantastic, but lets not forget the joys of Teletext. Anyone remember playing bamboozle?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 177.

    I remember a time (especially during the school holidays it seemed) when the BBC had no other programmes to show at a particular time in the day so they ended up putting up the pages of Ceefax on repeat. In this case of course if you did not manage to read a particular page in time you had to wait about half an hour for it to come round again! (remember this was before the days of the internet!)

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 176.

    So Ceefax is withdrawn but for those who do not have the Internet (of which there are still millions without or with slow speeds) licence payers who do not subscribe to subscription TV have no way of knowing cricket/tennis/football etc results or traffic news, together with a brief catch up on what the current news is of the day without having to resot to a computer. Thanks again BBC for nothing.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 175.

    I hope Mr and Mrs Boozle will be happy in their 8 colour blocky retirement home. They also invented the idea of pressing the red button....for answer A!

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 174.

    For the purposes that we all used Ceefax, it WAS the internet before the internet came along. And it came on our TV's so we didn't need to buy computers. Nowadays TV manufacturers endeavour to turn TV's into computers. In conclusion: Ceefax was way ahead of it's time, as proved by the longevity of its service - a marvel to the engineers who made it possible.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 173.

    I remember waking up to mum reading the ceefax news every morning, watching sports updates, my sister reading updates concerning,the car crash involving a friend, getting frustrated at not remembering the page numbers I needed, and it seeing me through the first time I stayed up all night. Ceefax- RIP.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 172.

    The early Internet - information on demand.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 171.

    I remember many a holidays to the med being found on Ceefax - way before last minute.com in the late 80s. I was around 10 then and the excitement of looking through the pages and pushing the coloured buttons not knowing where you might end up was fantastic - I suppose Ceefax was always going to go, but not forgotten! I guess my 2 year old will look at me funny in years to come talking of Ceefax!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 170.

    I had the pleasure of working with the CEEFAX Editorial Team at TVC in 2000. We used the CEEFAX pages to publish BBC NEWS to mobile phones. It was a real case of old technology meeting the bleeding edge.
    Farewell to a piece of broadcasting history.

 

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