Yesterday, after 38 years, the BBC’s Ceefax ceased transmission in line with the UK digital switchover. And with that, the digitally disenfranchised across the country have lost a trusted, faithful news service.
When I worked for the BBC one the little known facts about news consumption stays with me: that a large portion of the older generation get their news from the children’s news program – the long running, Newsround. Newsround is to TV what mobile-first is to web design: simple (not simplistic), economic, no-nonsense news reporting. Which is also like Ceefax.
Ceefax was the world’s first teletext system. Initially developed as a way of transmitting closed-caption information for programming, it quickly morphed into a system for delivering other information as well. For many, including me, it was a pre courser to the web.
I spent many-a-day checking the local weather service, TV listings and football scores. Like the web we take for granted today, Ceefax came into its own for on-demand content for breaking and developing news stories. I remember this distinctly for one example: the Manchester IRA bomb in the 1990’s. I’m from near Manchester and this event was local to me, and impacted me directly. Ceefax filed the gaps between scheduled news bulletins on the TV. And it was perfect for my generation who never quite got used to the idea of consuming up-to-date news information on radio. But, it was – up until yesterday – the same continued source of information for people who don’t have access to the web in their living room. They may have it on a computer somewhere else, but they don’t own a tablet, don’t use their phone for the web, or don’t even think to. They just want to check the football scores as they have done every Saturday for the last 30 years in their comfy chair. And with it’s speed, reliability and trust, Ceefax was the best place to go.
Ceefax also embodies a wonderful creativity with the constraints of the system. Low resolution, 8-bit colours, pixel fonts. The only thing missing was bleep, bleep music. As it happens, Ceefax transmitted with a rolling soundtrack that blended into the background and you began very quickly associating with the content: football scores to the “Treasure Eyes” by Robin Jap.
As you can see with these images, the designers at Ceefax were inventive, creative and, well, funny with how they squeezed every last ounce of power out of this wonderfully simple little system.
As you may tell, I’m going to miss it too.