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CEEFAX - THE EARLY YEARS: 1974-77

ceefax_letterhead_74-77.gif (3200 bytes)

ceefax_postcard.gif (54996 bytes)Beginning in September 1974, with only a handful of viewers, mainly engineers working in research laboratories, CEEFAX was broadcast daily for the following two years to a small but slowly-growing audience, as the system was evaluated and a final technical specification was agreed...

This Ceefax press release dating from 1977 charts the first three years of the world's first ever teletext service:

The BBC announced that it had developed CEEFAX on the 23rd October 1972. BBC Research Department engineers at Kingswood Warren in Surrey, 20 miles from London, had put together a number of new developments and technologies, and found a way of making use of spare capacity within the ordinary television signal.

In less than six months, test transmissions were being broadcast, and a BBC Specification (PH 1106) was published. On the 1st January 1974, a full-time Project Editor began work to develop the editorial side.

At this stage, again as a result of BBC initiative, the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority, plus the British television set manufacturers, got together to pool their knowledge and produce a unified United Kingdom Standard for all teletext. This common standard was agreed and published as a Joint BBC, IBA, and BREMA (British Radio Equipment Manufacturers Association) document in March 1974. Two months later, the BBC began test transmissions with the new standard, and on 23rd June 1974, CEEFAX was formally launched at a Press Conference in London, attended by the Minister responsible for Broadcasting, Lord Harris of Greenwich.

In September 1974, on the eve of a General Election, the Government authorised the start of a 2-year experiment of broadcast teletext. Five days later, on the occasion of an International Broadcasting Convention meeting in London, the BBC began its service of "live" CEEFAX bulletins, which have continued ever since.

At first, it was a limited service, for the CEEFAX magazines then only had a maximum of 30 "pages". They were compiled on a single research Visual Display Unit, which fed paper-tape into a simple Core Store memory for transmission.

By April 1975, CEEFAX was using a small mini-computer (known by those who worked with her as 'Esmeralda' for her temperamental ways) and half-a-dozen VDU's. These included the first outstation VDU, working directly to the Television Centre computer from Broadcasting House, five miles away.

By the end of the year, the BBC had begun a quite separate CEEFAX service on BBC-2. This BBC-2 magazine, although carrying a few common pages with BBC-1 (such as Headlines, and the NEWSFLASH, and Transmitter Information) was mainly a back-up magazine - a weekly, as opposed to BBC-1's daily. Thus, instead of daily road reports, it would carry long-term road surveys; instead of today's racing, a list of Derby Winners for 20 years. This is, however, seen only as an interim use of BBC-2. Its main use is to illustrate the fact that you get a different teletext service depending on which channel you are watching: BBC-2, BBC-1 or ITV.

In November 1976 CEEFAX and its compatible commercial television equivalent called 'Oracle', were given a formal go-ahead by the Government, subject to any recommendations made by Lord Annan's Committee on the Future of Broadcasting. When Lord Annan's Committee reported in March 1977, it endorsed the view that teletext was worthwhile and should be run by the broadcasting organisations. In August 1977, the Government confirmed in a message to the British television manufacturing industry that CEEFAX was "here to stay".

Thanks to pioneering work in the early 1970s by the BBC's Research Department, Britain has led the world in developing teletext transmissions from the start. The breakthrough into the market-place was spurred by the activity of Texas Instruments of Bedford, England, one of the leading makers of the pocket electronic calculator. This company developed the first commercial decoder units, which came on the market in Britain in the Spring of 1977.

Right away, television set manufacturers began incorporating these TIFAX decoders into television sets, or into add-on adaptor units, and within a few months CEEFAX was available in shops across the country. Although these first fully-integrated sets and adaptors were expensive, it was soon clear that economies of scale and keen competition, were smartly bringing prices down.

Two other British companies involved in the production of Large-Scale Integrated circuits - G.E.C. and Mullard - which had both been part of the teletext dialogue from the beginning, also announced their own decoder units. More manufacturers began establishing production lines, and perhaps most important in a country which largely rents its television, a major rental firm (Radio Rentals) began taking orders from customers for teletext-equipped sets.

CEEFAX IN THE HIGH STREET

ceefax_dial.jpg (22873 bytes)1977 was the year in which CEEFAX reached the High Street.

Quite literally, for some two dozen of the first shops and stores to stock and demonstrate Teletext had High Street addresses. Other pioneer providers of CEEFAX-equipped sets had more romantic-sounding street names: St.Blazey Gate at Par, Cornwall and Tomnahurich Street in Inverness, Rampant Horse Street in Norwich and Knifesmithgate in Chesterfield. (Indeed, a whole history of British life might be traced in such dealer addresses as Hungate and Friargate, Mardol and Buttermarket, Trongate and Marischall Street, Widemarsh and Drumlanrig, and Rue de Candie, Castel, Guernsey.)

The first fully-integrated sets on sale were those of Rank Radio International, while the main maker of adaptors was Labgear, a branch of Pye of Cambridge.

By the start of CEEFAX's fourth year of broadcasting (the ITV began a limited teletext service some nine months after CEEFAX), it was estimated that there were some 6,000 sets out in the field, and the general view was that there would be over twice that number by the end of 1977. Projections for 1978 suggest a figure of at least 50,000; though the makers of the decoder-modules are geared for substantially greater production and identify possible early sales of at least a quarter-of-a-million teletext sets in the replacement and rental markets.

Numbers are hard to confirm. The BBC has no means of checking, as it is not seeking any additional licence revenue for CEEFAX during the run of the present BBC Charter which ends in July 1979). The manufacturers have been understandably reticent about revealing their sales and production plans in these early days. A substantial number of individuals have also built their own home-made sets. Electronic enthusiasts followed Do-It-Yourself advice in the magazines "Wireless World" and "Television" using discrete components or kits supplied by Catronics. Since then, others have equipped their sets with adaptors based on the TIFAX module. Small firms also stepped in to take advantage of a fluid market during the experimental two-year period.

Teletext was to be seen on display or being demonstrated in numerous public places and events: at the International Home Electronics and Domestic Appliances Exhibition (HEDA 1976) at Birmingham, and at the 1977 Jubilee "British Genius" Exhibition in London's Battersea Park; at the Science Museum in South Kensington, and at all the Trades Union Congress and Party Political Conferences (1974-1977); as well as at numerous Trade Fairs and Exhibitions, educational and scientific Conferences, and at Agricultural Shows.

CEEFAX EDITORIAL

When the Government go-ahead in November 1976 ended the two-year experimental period, the BBC wan quick to put CEEFAX on a full operational basis. New equipment was purchased and a complete spare transmission chain was set up, to ensure that it stayed on the air throughout the hours of broadcasting. An enlarged editorial team of journalists was recruited to update the pages for some 16 hours daily, 365 days a year. CEEFAX goes on the air as soon as BBC transmissions start up in the morning, and it remains there as long as there is a television picture (even a simple Test Card) on which the CEEFAX signals can travel.

CEEFAX broadcasts not only News and Information about national and international events, but Sports Results and Stock Market prices, Recipes and Shopping Guides for housewives, Weather and Travel Reports, Gardening Tips and TV Programme Guides, Theatre Reviews and the Top Twenty records.

Ceefax newsroom[The picture, left, shows Will Garforth and Ian Morton-Smith in the Ceefax newsroom]

CEEFAX uses all the resources of the many BBC Newsrooms - in local radio, the regions, the overseas service, and the national radio and television newsrooms. It can draw on the full team of BBC Specialist Correspondents (Diplomatic, Home Affairs, Agricultural, Defence, Air, Industrial) and get help from programme-makers in almost every field of activity. It also draws on the major national and international news agencies, and many other outside sources.

There are no "deadlines" in the CEEFAX operation, news is transmitted as fast as it can be typed, and there is no need to wait for the next regular bulletin or programme-break, as in conventional broadcasting. Equally, it is there when the viewer wants it, at a time of his or her own choosing, and not that of the broadcaster. He can confirm something half-heard on radio or television, check his football pools at leisure, or follow-up a story read in the evening newspaper on the way home.

Or, later, when viewing his ordinary evening television, he can set his decoder to a special NEWSFLASH facility, and settle down to The Generation Game, Kojak, or a BBC-2 Opera, confident that any important item of late news will be superimposed briefly on his ordinary picture. But, again, only for those who want this service; it does not intrude on anyone else's picture.

For those interested in Finance, and the workings of the City, CEEFAX offers stock market reports throughout the day, major company news and results, news of the pound sterling and rates of exchange, of industry and international finance. For those interested in Sport, CEEFAX provides a fast news and results service for all major sports. League Tables and other statistics are always on hand, in effect stored within your own television set, to settle the inevitable pub or club discussion; and there is also a regular Sports Quiz.

As regards the future, the BBC has declared that its aim is to develop CEEFAX "nationally, regionally and locally", and provision has been made in the BBC's 10 Year Budget for this future expansion.

CEEFAX OVERSEAS

Britain's lead in this completely new form of broadcasting was soon recognised abroad, and a flood of engineers, programme makers, journalists, and government and post office officials began visiting the CEEFAX Newsroom on the 7th floor at BBC Television Centre, White City, West London.

By the autumn of 1977, representatives from some 85 countries had seen CEEFAX in action, and the CEEFAX Sub-Editors had grown accustomed to explaining their operation to visitors from countries as diverse as Costa Rica and Oman, New Zealand and East Germany, Japan and the Bahamas.

Sweden was the first country to follow suit, and set up a full-scale CEEFAX-type experiment, with an emphasis on its implications for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing. Australia was not far behind. Indeed, Australia had test signals on the air only months after her first engineers had visited London, and a pilot service is expected to be broadcast by the end of the year.

Other countries actively concerned either with trials, evaluation-tests or positive discussion on teletext, include Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands and West Germany.

In Berlin, the great International Radio and Television Fair in August 1977 the Funkausstellung - saw rival teams of broadcasters and newspapermen compiling full teletext magazines for transmission over the Berlin network. The broadcasters' version VIDEOTEXT and the newspapers' Bildschirmzeitung (Screen Newspaper) were both seen by thousands of people and given wide publicity throughout Germany thanks to the newspaper involvement and the large number of teletext-equipped sets on display at the show.

At the same time, a Swiss news editor was working in the CEEFAX Newsroom to provide pages of teletext in German for broadcast in Switzerland during the course of the Zurich Radio and Television Festival (FERA). These pages were compiled in London and flown to Zurich, all getting through despite the continuing strike by the air traffic control assistants at Heathrow.

Meanwhile, BBC engineers have proved to their satisfaction that CEEFAX although designed for the 625-line system used in Britain and Europe, could be adapted for the 525-line NTSC system used in the United States and South America and Japan.

Four British firms are known to be making transmitter equipment which will enable overseas broadcasters to set up their own teletext systems.

Teletext Timeline | An Evening with Ceefax

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