BBC Ceefax- the world’s first teletext service has been closed down 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.
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.
It was called Ceefax, simply because viewers would be able to quickly “see the facts” of any story of the day.
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.
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.
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.