Teletext, UK web precursor, dies with analog signals

The completion of Britain's move to digital television means the end of its earliest distinctively digital TV service. Ceefax, the teletext service launched in 1974, vanishes with the analog TV signals that carry it.

After service to millions of Londoners ended yesterday, the only regions still able to access the service are Kent and Tyneside.

Teletext was originally devised as a closed captioning system for the hard-of-hearing. But it soon grew to offer on-demand news, sports scores and weather reports to a generation of Britons.

Though far more limited than BBS services—all users can do is punch in page numbers and wait a second or five for the cycling datastream to get to it—operators made the most of it, with Choose Your Own Adventure-style games and pixelated artwork among the attractions. Unlike the early internet, all you needed was a modern TV set. The service was also free of charge in an age when U.K. phone calls, and therefore Internet access, was metered by the minute.

At the BBC, Matthew Engel offers a final love letter. The Telegraph's Emma Barnett offers 10 things she'll miss the most.


  1. I believe it’s not necessarily linked to the analog signal.  I’ve gone digital around 2001 and our set displays Videotext – the German name for Teletext – just fine.

    1. It’s not linked “officially” to the analogue signal- although they actively didn’t include ‘proper’ teletext when they built up the standard used to run digital terrestrial TV in the UK (replacing it instead with an MHEG-based system)- so broadcasters on the Freeview platform all progressively abandoned it.

      (Also, teletext services on the commercial terrestrial channels were treated as their own licence and awarded to other companies, who left the system long ago- leaving them with no content to fill teletext with even if they could have one)

      UK digital satellite is capable of carrying old-school teletext (the BBC, by example, continued to broadcast a page telling people to go to digital text instead, and some satellite channels brought their teletext system with them when first coming to digital) but largely smaller channels can’t afford it, midsize channels prefer to send people to their website and bigger broadcasters prefer MHEG for a number of reasons (Both Sky and the BBC run services that work almost identically to teletext, as well as enhanced interactive TV services, like match selection for sports coverage) and as a result, viewers aren’t looking for it.

      Effectively, it’s been doomed to fall with analogue’s sword. But yes, you’re right, it’s not linked directly.

  2. In related news, France pulled the plug last year on its own Videotext pre-internet service, called the Minitel I still have memories of checking weather reports and buying train tickets on it, and it apparently also had its own hack/phreak scene (see for a history).

    1. Aww. I remember Telidon in Canada. The pre-Web was sprouting up everywhere, but without user-generatable content, it couldn’t thrive.

      1. Yes. Telidon was great. (I was in Ottawa for the birth of Telidon and NAPLPS [Telidon was gasping its last the year the Macintosh was first introduced. :-])

        But unfortunately, as you say, its was not exactly a social media platform. (Like HyperCard wasn’t ready for the big time yet.)

        Its was doomed to fail but what a great time was had by all who worked on it.

  3. I remember using it to follow cricket scores when I wasn’t watching the cricket. Now I
    suppose you have them up on your computer…

    And subtitles on 888, but we still get them, just not in that BBC Micro Mode 7 text…

    1. I remember using it to try to find something entertaining on British TV in the late 90s. It didn’t work, but I’m glad I was able to experience it.

  4. I wonder if the same service (called Teledata) is still running in South Africa. We loved messing around with it as kids before TV started at 4PM.

  5. Wow! I completely forgot this existed ever since our cable box started offering its own menu. You used to be able to check everything on teletext…weather, lotto results, tv schedule…

    Actually, my first messageboard experience was via teletext. It was the Paramount Comedy Channel, and you’d email your comment to the mysterious ‘Ed’ . They took days to appear :P

        1. It was a running joke on Paramount Text’s letters page at one point. Relatively late on, as I recall.

  6. It’s just not the same when it’s on digital service or the Internet. You know it’s basically just a modern internet/cable box service contrived to resemble something oldschool. 

    This was an awesome hack that encoded plaintext inside broadcast signals in a way anyone could freely access, which may have been SEKRITLY invented by BBC engineers as a ghetto email system. How awesome is that?

  7. Another great thing about the teletext services (in the U.K., anyway): after stations closed for the night, they used to simply broadcast the pages in a loop, with weird disco-synth library music. It’d be on before the cartoons started.

    1. There were several 80s UK tv shows that did “Pages from Ceefax” gags (I think Three of a Kind was one?), and, of course, Look Around You did them for the DVD.

    2. ITV still have an overnight text-based information service, but it’s closer to powerpoint than teletext. It’s called “ITV Nightscreen”

      Tonight’s is on at 3.54 AM.

      (Also, one of the Pages From Ceefax tunes was also the theme to Tarrant On TV)

  8. My father was the first editor of Ceefax, running the project from its launch until his retirement. We used to have a prototype ‘teletext TV’ in the house, complete with a remote control that consisted of a box with three rotary switches (so you could dial in the page numbers) connected to the set by a cable.

    Speaking of which, if anyone would like a teletext frame store, capable of storing more than 100 teletext pages in its massive 128K memory, I think I know where you could get one cheap …

  9. Our university campus cable TV system – and one or two local cable TV providers – once had something quite similar. IMHO, plain text is*beautiful*

  10. Text-tv, the Norwegian version of this is still running strong, even after the analog signal is switched off. It’s proven to be hugely popular among younger people as well as the ones who first grew up with it. I predict an uprising in Norway if they decide to turn it off.

  11. This is really neat, and as a lover of the old school, I’m sorry I never lived in a place that had such a service.

    And re: “a minute or five”–I still have delays like that when trying to use Time Warner’s digital service to search for a show.  Perhaps it’d be faster if it didn’t need to constantly barrage me with ads.

      1. hahaha, yes, I remember booking a trip to Tenerife through Teletext.
        Page 126… Tenerife 150GBP…. PRESS HOLD! PRESS HOLD!…damn it’s gone

  12. As an American kid growing up in England in the late 80s, teletext was the only thing that made up for the fact I only had four channels to watch. 

    While I had no idea it was still around, I am nonetheless saddened to mark its passing. 

  13. I remember buying a third party teletext adaptor, not the sleek official acorn box, for my BBC Model B Micro as a kid. This let you view teletext (which was  basically the BBC Micro Mode 7 character set I think) and, more exciting, let you  download software over the air, slowly. 

    They called it telesoftware. Page 700. It was updated weekly. Using the same system you could download high res (ish) meteosat satelite weather images. Sadly ditched in late 80 / early 90s

  14. It’s been being shut down across the UK for a while, and it ‘dies’ when it’s switched off in London, but still available in other places that presumably don’t count? Mmm… no, Rob.

    1. I’m afraid so, Tom. When Americans ask me where in Britain I come from, I look at them aghast and say, “London, of course”. Then I let out a sight of frustrated contempt and shake my head at them until they look away.

  15. Teletext will be available with analog TV until much later this year in Northern Ireland, the last part of the UK to be converted. 

    Unfortunately, Rob Beshirra doesn’t understand that UK stands for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and lazily only lists places in England.

  16. Man, I had often thought how awesome it would have been back in the 80’s or 90’s to essentially have home computers be able to pull in data sent out via AM radio or something similar. You could have common information like weather, sports scores, and headlines just naturally gathered up. 

    Probably that type of thing would still be useful in the developing world… use shortwave, have cheap PC’s/handhelds to pick up the data and cache it locally. Not an internet replacement, but certainly a useful data service. 

  17. Chicago had a looped broadcast called Nite-Owl (can find it on YouTube) with the same sort of stuff.  I’m convinced that from growing up in the early 80s, the neon-on-black pixelated colors are firmly etched into my memory as “future.”

    Anyway, we had no such interactivity.  I would have flipped out over it at the time (free BBS!).

  18. Oh man.  Thanks to this post I think I’ve finally figured out what it was that sucked up way too many hours of my youth–Electra!  One of two computing mysteries from my childhood (born in ’83) solved.  Now if just need to figure out the name of that damn Commodore 64 game. (Anybody remember a game where you’re running around, one level involved dodging arrows, another involved jumping over a bridge with missing planks?)

  19. Just noticed BBC2 no longer has it’s ‘pages from Ceefax’ all night (sure it did just a couple of days ago), now rolling news coverage…

    My dads worried, he still goes into the dining room to lookup sport results on the old analogue telly. Hates the new digital services (rightly so, they suck). But he’s in Kent so a few more months…

    1. Yes, nothing like waiting half a minute (for TV sets that don’t cache) until you get to see your page. Who needs instantaneous access? ;-)

      1. I cut him slack, he’s very technophobic. Pressing ‘text’ then a three digit number really is his limit with modern technology. ;)

  20. We still have Teletext here in South Africa on channel SABC 2. I’ve always known about it, but only recently bought a TV that could actually retrieve and display it. Still has very relevant information and I regularly see my kids browsing through it, even though we have a high speed internet connection…

  21. Meanwhile in the USA, hdmi cables do not transmit the old closed captioning system (that uses the vertical blanking interval), even though some DVDs continue to be manufactured and sold that rely on that system to deliver captions to the hearing impaired.

Comments are closed.