Wednesday 23 November 2022

1974: Ceefax Arrives (And Barely Anyone Can See It)

Teletext is unique, when it comes to British television, in that it’s universally loved. In a world where people grouse about Test Card F being creepy and the lack of modern ‘pace’ in programmes which are four decades old, it’s difficult to find something we all agree on. But I’m yet to hear a single dissenting word regarding teletext. In fact, any mention of teletext will instantly lead to excitably barked cries of “PAGE 302 for the football headlines!”, “Bamboozler!”, “PRESS REVEAL!” and the biggest smiles you ever did see. But what did society think of Ceefax, the world’s first teletext service, when it launched in 1974? And why did it have such a small audience?

It was in October 1972 the BBC announced that their engineers at the Kingswood Warren research centre were developing a new system by the name of Ceefax. However, rather than taking the form of a television channel, this service would inhabit the same space as the Beeb’s existing channels. Viewers would be armed with a remote device that, with just the press of a button, could activate the Ceefax system and open a world of printed headlines and weather forecasts. For a viewer to receive Ceefax, they would need to ensure that their television set was installed with a special attachment costing around £100 (roughly £1400 in today’s money).

Television sets would receive Ceefax in much the same way they received programmes, from a television transmitter. But Ceefax signals would be slightly different. During the transmission of television programmes, there were around 50 “gaps” in transmission each second. The information received during these gaps would then be stored within the Ceefax ‘attachment’ and available for the viewer to access at their leisure. No release date, at this point, was in place, but “out of laboratory” tests were planned for 1973 and, all things going well, it was hoped that the system could be rolled out by 1974/75.

Development of Ceefax continued throughout 1973 and, by the following summer, around 5,000 hours of engineering test broadcasts had been completed. However, aside from some budding enthusiasts, who had managed to construct homemade receivers, the general public were yet to see Ceefax on their screens.

By now, the technical standards of Ceefax had been unified with those of IBA’s proposed Oracle system. Both teletext systems would operate thanks to four unused lines (out of 625) along the top of a television picture, which were hidden from viewers. These four lines would be used to receive digital pulses of information which could then be used to code the pages. It was an exciting prospect, but the country’s lack of exposure to the service meant the public mood was mixed. Peter Fiddick, writing in The Guardian, was intrigued by the potential of Ceefax and the possibilities it could open, but remained sceptical that Britain needed or even wanted the service.

Despite this cynicism - which at its most extreme was minimal, given that 1974 also saw the three-day week, IRA bombings and two general elections – Ceefax launched on September 23rd, 1974 as a two-year experimental service. The only snag was that barely anyone could receive it. Well, they could receive the Ceefax signals, but the teletext receivers required to decode these onscreen were not commercially available; by the start of 1975 it was estimated that only half a dozen or so engineers were able to receive the service. Outside of this, the only chance the public had to see Ceefax in action was at special demonstrations held at exhibitions and Broadcasting House.

But what was contained within the pages of these early broadcasts? Well, for those who could see it, there were 24 pages on offer which covered news headlines, sports coverage, weather forecasts and travel updates. Evidence of these earliest Ceefax broadcasts is, currently, non-existent but there’s a small chance it does exist.

The Philips VCR home recording format had been launched in 1972 and, much like VHS and Betamax after it, would record teletext signals alongside any broadcasts. Recordings this old, however, are rare, although not unheard of. The oldest example of Ceefax to be preserved in this way comes from August 1975 (see and provides a fascinating look into not just the service, but a precise moment in world history with reports on IRA bombings, the results of the world rowing championships and news coming in that army units were being placed on alert in the politically unstable Portugal.

A year on from its launch, Ceefax – which now boasted 50 pages – remained a niche experience. Its audience still consisted of a handful of engineers who were lucky enough to have the correct equipment to decode the signals. But an appetite for this new frontier of information was slowly emerging; for example, the November 1975 edition of Wireless World featured the first part of a ‘how to build your own teletext decoder’ guide.

By 1976, around 10 companies were developing commercial teletext decoders and ITT were trialling the production of television sets with a built-in decoder. Teletext in the UK was given a further boost in the arm, in November 1976, when the Home Office extended the life of its trial to the end of the decade. Four years later, progress had advanced to a point where there 80,000 television sets capable of displaying teletext. The output of Ceefax had also expanded, with 200 pages available across the BBC1 and BBC2 services.

Ceefax would run for just under 40 years, finally going off the airwaves in 2012 when Britain’s analogue television transmissions were switched off. But even now, 10 years later, in an age where we are bombarded with instant information, the simplicity of Ceefax is sorely missed. Sure, if you showed it to one of those young people and asked what they thought, their response would likely be a snort of derision. Thankfully, we don’t care what they and their abundance of collagen think.

Ceefax may have had a very, very slow start – the editors in those earliest days must have thought they were on a hiding to nothing – but this perseverance paid off and resulted in a service which was rightfully considered a national treasure.

This article originally appeared in issue six of the Curious British Telly fanzine

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