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CEEFAX DEVELOPS... 1979-1985

The BBC Annual Report and Handbook chronicled CEEFAX's progress every year, reporting on the major milestones and the ever increasing number of users, year by year. This page collects extracts from all the Annual Reports from 1981 to 1986 (covering the years 1979 to 1985).

The BBC's Engineering team developed enhancements to the service, while the News & Current Affairs department were responsible for operating the service day to day. Reports from both departments are included here, where appropriate.

Thanks once again to Mark Cook for his help with this page.

BBC ANNUAL REPORT 1981 (covering 1979-1980)
CEEFAX, the BBC teletext service of news and information, became fully operational with the installation of new origination equipment. Although generally available only to viewers whose sets are equipped for teletext, the CEEFAX service was also made experimentally available to all viewers with the introduction of a series of transmissions at breakfast-time on BBC 1.

After a period of experimentation, CEEFAX finally 'went live' and those early morning 'teletext in vision' sequences are still with us now, 20 years on...

A significant improvement was made to the CEEFAX origination equipment during the year with the installation of a new computer system. The new system is more reliable than the previous one and it also improves the facilities available to the CEEFAX editors.

The company responsible for the detailed design of the computer system to the BBC's requirements is marketing the system, and one sale has already been made, from which the BBC will receive royalty payments.

The year 1979 will be remembered as the year in which, for the first time, a television programme was broadcast on the network with accompanying subtitles transmitted on CEEFAX. The programme, Quietly in Switzerland, was of particular interest to deaf viewers since it dealt with the visit of a party of deaf children to Switzerland. Deaf viewers with teletext receivers could enjoy the programme by displaying the CEEFAX subtitles, while other viewers were quite unaware that subtitles were being transmitted.

During the year several other programmes were subtitled in this way, including the Queen's Christmas message.

The first CEEFAX subtitles, something now so commonplace that it's sometimes hard to find programmes without subtitles.

The United Kingdom already leads the world in one application of digital techniques to television. This is the teletext system, which has provided a full public broadcasting service for more than four years (see page 169 reference section). Several other countries are now considering the introduction of a teletext service, and it would be advantageous if the system that they adopt conforms technical standards similar to the system used in the United Kingdom (BBC CEEFAX and IBA Oracle). To facilitate this the BBC has proposed a version of the CEEFAX system, known as polyglot CEEFAX, which can provide the large repertoire of characters used by the various European languages; in 1979 regular transmissions began of experimental pages in the polyglot CEEFAX format to assist in the possible development of the system as a European standard.

This passage was included as part of a section describing research into digital broadcasting, something that only became a practical reality in 1999, 20 years after the period covered by this report. Ironically, the digital successor to teletext is still not available on most digital channels.

The reference section (referred to above) contained a standard description of CEEFAX that didn't really vary much from year to year. Here is that year's:

CEEFAX is the BBC's teletext service of news and information. A team of BBC journalists updates the information for 18 hours a day, seven days a week. CEEFAX on BBC 1 acts as an up-to-the-minute news service, with more than 200 pages constantly changing. The FT Index and share prices are updated hourly; horse-racing results are broadcast within minutes of the end of each race. CEEFAX on BBC 2 consists of a features magazine called Orbit. Its 200 or so pages with background items on the news, What's On and Events guides, gardening notes and hobby hints, competitions and word-games, are updated at least once a week.

Bring back Orbit! [And the News Background section -MB]

BBC ANNUAL REPORT 1982 (covering 1980-1981)
The BBC's youngest news service, CEEFAX, marked the occasion with a 'first' of its own: Olympic results 'pages' were put into the system by one of its own sub-editors direct from Moscow.

This refers to the Moscow Olympics, held in 1980.

In addition to providing a variety of news, information, and entertainment pages, the BBC's CEEFAX magazine is used to carry subtitles for some television programmes. The advantage of transmitting the subtitles on CEEFAX is, of course, that hard-of-hearing viewers with teletext receivers can elect to display the subtitles, while the rest of the audience does not suffer an unnecessary intrusion into the programme. Unfortunately the preparation of subtitles in advance of transmission using equipment designed for subtitling foreign feature films, is too time-consuming and expensive to provide a comprehensive CEEFAX subtitling service, and the BBC is therefore investigating other methods including immediate transcription from spoken word to subtitle by an operator using a modified Palantype shorthand machine. The 'shorthand' output of the Palantype keyboard is fed to a computer which has a 70,000 word dictionary held in an associated data store - with the aid of the dictionary the computer deciphers the shorthand to produce normal text for the subtitles. In January the system was used for the first time to subtitle a 'live' programme - the Inauguration of President Reagan as the 40th President of the United States of America. CEEFAX viewers were able to read what the President said virtually as he said it, a great boon to the deaf. The programme was successful but further work needs to be carried out to improve the 'literacy' of the subtitles, and to determine the maximum number of words that can be easily read. During the year the techniques of CEEFAX subtitling for recorded programmes also took a step forward with the introduction of improved equipment that allows a half-hour recorded programme to be subtitled in about a day, instead of two and a half days as before. The new equipment was used for several programmes during the year, including the Queen's Christmas broadcast and the much-praised Yes Minister.

BBC ANNUAL REPORT 1983 (covering 1981-1982)

Since the beginning of October 1981, the CEEFAX pages have been transmitted on four lines per field instead of two. The extra capacity is being used to give quicker access to pages, an improvement that was particularly appropriate at the start of 'Teletext Month' - a Department of Industry/Central Office of Information promotion held in October to increase public awareness of teletext (CEEFAX and ITV's Oracle) and increase sales of teletext receivers. At the end of 1981 the total number of teletext receivers sold had reached 300,000 and the number was growing fast.

This was a big deal - teletext was incredibly slow when using only two lines per field

BBC ANNUAL REPORT 1984 (covering 1982-1983)

The year saw the number of receivers with the Teletext facility rise to a million in Britain. A high proportion of all new TV sets have this facility and it is estimated that 10 million viewers will be able to receive Teletext by the end of 1985.

The BBC's Teletext system has three services and all have expanded. Ceefax - the main information service on both channels - now opens BBC 1's day with half an hour of information called CEEFAX AM before Breakfast Television starts. And Ceefax now sends its own reporters to major sporting events such as Wimbledon, the Open Golf Championship and the World Snooker Championships. On occasion, specially-adapted BBC micro-computers are used as terminals to enable the reporters to provide the public with up-to-the-minute scores.

The second service - subtitling for the deaf and hard of hearing - increased the number of programmes handled and has begun building up a major subtitling unit in Glasgow with a view to providing subtitling for all major pre-recorded programmes broadcast at peak hours.

The latest development of Teletext, Telesoftware, now uses further Ceefax pages to broadcast computer programs. Although the viewer can see these programs on his Teletext screen, and could in theory copy them down, they are primarily aimed directly at computers.

This year saw Ceefax rise in importance to the extent that it was given its own section in the 'Television' part of the Report.

BBC ANNUAL REPORT 1985 (covering 1983-1984)

By the beginning of 1984 there were one and a half million television sets equipped with the teletext facility in Britain. The set-manufacturing industry is producing more than half a million further teletext sets each year so that it is estimated that some 10 million viewers will be able to receive teletext by the end of 1985.

The three services provided by BBC Teletext have been expanded during the year. The main information service on both BBC 1 and BBC2 - CEEFAX - now provides 600 pages of regularly updated news, information, sports results, City news and weather forecasts at all times when BBC transmitters are on the air. Teletext starts the BBC's day with half an hour of news, travel and weather information called CEEFAX AM before Breakfast Television starts.

During the year the magazine has been reshaped and most of the pages have been redesigned. New services covering travel news and information about the BBC's own activities have been introduced. CEEFAX has also extended the practice of sending its own reporters to major events, especially in the sports field. Wimbledon, the Open Golf Championship and the World Snooker Championships have again seen the presence of CEEFAX reporters equipped with specially adapted BBC microcomputers which act as terminals and allow the reporter to update scores minute by minute. Teletext has now included chess in its coverage and has expanded its output on motor sport.

The second BBC Teletext service provides subtitling on television programmes for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. The large unit at Glasgow has now begun to build up and by the Spring of 1984 an average of 10 hours of programmes were being subtitled each week.

Telesoftware is the service which broadcasts computer programs directly to computers: the third arm of the BBC Teletext service. Officially launched in September 1983, it is the first service of its kind anywhere in the world. There is a regular output of computer programs to support the BBC microcomputer, but extending the service to other computers is being considered.

One of the highlights of the year was our attainment of the Queen's Award to Industry for Technology, for pioneering work in the development and transmission of teletext. With this award, made jointly to the BBC's Engineering Directorate and the IBA's Engineering Division, it can truly be said that teletext has come of age. Some 1,500,000 Teletext receivers are now in service in this country and our British system has been adopted worldwide, with the result that a large market has been created abroad for the complex semiconductor chips used in teletext receivers. The production of these chips in the UK has risen to more than 4,000,000 a year, half of which are exported.

The most recent teletext innovation is the BBC's Telesoftware service, in which teletext pages carry computer programs for schools and home-computer users. This service came into operation in September 1983 and has proved very popular.

Teletext lead the Engineering section with news of its richly deserved award.

BBC ANNUAL REPORT 1986 (covering 1984-1985)

The BBC's teletext service, Ceefax, made further headway, in numbers and scope. With close to 2 million sets now in use in the UK, and production at the rate of more than half-a-million sets a year, the audience has been growing for this service which is on the air from 6.00 am to closedown on both BBC channels. The service has grown to more than 600 'pages', many of them updated at frequent intervals throughout the day. Ceefax, using micro-computers to feed information direct from the field, increasingly has its own sports coverage - Wimbledon, the Open Golf Championship and the World Snooker Championship have been notable occasions. Subtitling of programmes, through the Ceefax system, has expanded rapidly, with the growth of the Glasgow-based BBC sub-titling unit. The deaf and hard of hearing now have upwards of 15 hours a week of subtitled BBC programmes available, and exports of subtitles have begun to Australian and New Zealand television.

September saw the first regular subtitling of 'live' programmes. Blue Peter has been subtitled weekly, thanks to a generous grant from the National Deaf Children's Society, and to RECAP, a new piece of equipment which has also been used for experimental 'live' subtitling of sports programmes.

During the year, the Telesoftware service of computer programs has passed out of the experimental stage, and in a further development, computer programs to help enter 'O' and 'A' level candidates have been broadcast for schools. British teletext, as the standard World Teletext System, has achieved world-wide recognition. Ceefax staff assisted with the launch of teletext in Malaysia and demonstrated it at the Los Angeles Olympic Games. When the Arab States Broadcasting Union met in Tunis in September, the BBC provided its mobile dish aerial for a display of BBC and IBA teletext, relayed via satellite, so giving Ceefax another opportunity in the international promotion of the system pioneered in Britain.

Some two million homes in the UK now have teletext receivers. With this growing audience in mind, considerable engineering improvements have been made in the origination area to provide new editorial facilities, and to allow for 'future enhancements'. Facilities to provide subtitled programmes for the deaf have also been expanded - three preparation stations are in operation at Television Centre and twelve at Glasgow - and each week 15 hours of programmes are transmitted with Ceefax subtitles.

For programmes that are recorded before transmission (the vast majority) subtitles are prepared and recorded in advance and are automatically transmitted in correct synchronism under computer control. 'Live' programmes are much more difficult to subtitle but BBC engineers have devised a new system, known as Recap, which overcomes many of the disadvantages of other 'live' subtitling systems. With Recap, up to 60 words and phrases that are expected to be used with a particular programme can be stored and directly accessed from a bank of 60 push buttons. Where a football match is being covered, for example, the names of players can be assigned to individual buttons, as can phrases commonly used in the match commentary. The word or phrase can then be 'flashed-up' on the screen by depressing a single button instead of having to type in the individual characters.

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