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The Internet kills Teletext

Obituary Mourning the web's first attempt
Wed Dec 16 2009, 13:55

ANYONE WHO GREW UP in the seventies will have fond memories of Teletext, the television-based textual information and entertainment service that many see as a forerunner of the Internet and the world wide web.teletext

Originally developed by the BBC to deliver closed captioning to television audiences, Teletext became the point of last resort for the chronic insomniacs, sports nuts and information addicts throughout the UK.

At one time the news service alone had a staff nine which would constantly roll out 30 pages of constantly updated news, and for many a small boy it was their first contact within anything close to computing.

You can barely imagine the excitement created by calling up at will literally dozens of pages of blocky text and badly drawn sprite graphics, and each page only took three or four minutes to draw. It truly was a sight to behold.

The service was tested in the early seventies on an audience of three or four people who had a suitably equipped TV - keep in mind that, at this time, most sets didn't even have a remote control - but by 1982, more than 2 million compatible sets had been sold and a virtual panoply of information was available to anyone with the patience to sit through 29 pages of irrelevance to get to page 30, which was the one you actually wanted to see.

On its launch, the Times said: "Unseen by all but a few of Britain's millions of television viewers special signals of great importance are quietly being carried 'on the back' of Top of the Pops, Tomorrow's World and other regular BBC1 programmes. When unscrambled these signals produce silent 'pages' of information which are displayed on the television screen at the press of a button".

Teletext was, despite its retrospective shortcomings, a technological triumph given the resources available. Each page contained just one kilobyte of data and that data could only be transferred during the field blanking interval, where the rasterization line moves from bottom of the screen back up to the top.

Teletext even introduced a whole generation of kids who couldn't afford a computer to on-screen gaming. With just four channels on offer, many a rainy school holiday was spent transfixed to the flickering screen playing the likes of Bamboozle, which was basically Who Wants to be a Millionaire without the fancy set, Chris Tarrant's smug, grinning face, and the chance of winning anything at all let alone a million quid. The game used the Fast Text keys, the same four coloured buttons which remain on just about every TV remote until this day, to select your answer to a multiple choice question.

The fact that the questions were updated regularly, sometimes even daily, was a source of great excitement in playgrounds throughout the UK, and completing the quiz in one go each time it was updated was a great source of bragging rights for spotty adolescents everywhere.

Those of you who worked out how to cheat the quiz - there were a number of closely guarded secrets to hacking the system - should be ashamed of yourselves. Mind you, most of you are probably raking in the cash working for Internet security companies or the Russian Mafia by now.

Game Central - found on page 806 if our beer-addled memories serve us correctly - was essential reading for Sinclair Spectrum and C64-owning game junkies. Four whole pages of gaming news, updated daily, at a time when numb-thumbed juveniles were starved of information about their second-favourite hobby.

But it wasn't all fun and games. Teletext has been used as a reliable news source for decades, and some of us can remember turning back to the old workhorse on a number of occasions, the most memorable of which was on September 11th 2001 when the terrorist attacks in the USA caused most of the major Internet news portals to collapse under the weight of user demand. Because Teletext is a broadcast service, never ground to a halt, no matter how many people were using it.

And in the days before 24 hour digital news channels, sales of teletext-capable TV sets were dramatically boosted by international events like the Falklands war which saw hordes of news-hungry punters rushing to Rumbelows to update their ancient equipment.

Supported by on-screen advertising, in its heyday Teletext posted profits of up to £30 million and was an essential service for anyone wanting to book a holiday, check the local news, keep up to date with regional weather and traffic reports or just waste a few hours when the daytime TV schedules were clogged up with Crown Court and beardy boffins from the Open University droning on about quadratic equations.

Sadly, Teletext is no more. Killed off by its bastard progeny the Internet, with its unending output of pornography, misinformation and glossy marketing cobblers. It's true that some of the more commercially successful chunks of the service will survive in one form or another on the red button of your flat screen TV's remote, but today is a sad day indeed.

Teletext was a peculiarly British institution of which many of us have very fond memories and we mourn its demise. µ


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