The Teletext Salvagers: How VHS is bringing teletext back from the dead
Long before the World Wide Web became the so-called “information superhighway”, we had teletext. By comparison, it was more of a dirt track. But the service was hugely important. The first teletext service, Ceefax, launched on BBC channels in 1974 and was quickly followed by a competing service (first ORACLE, then one simply called Teletext) on ITV and Channel 4.
“If you wanted the latest headlines or the football scores in the era before the internet, Teletext was the only option.”
News, weather, TV schedules and a wealth of other digital information was encoded into TV signals that could be accessed by hitting the “Text” button on TV remotes. To access the information you wanted, you had to simply dial in the number of the page you wanted using the remote control, and your cathode-ray tube would cycle through and wait for page to appear. It wasn’t quick, it wasn’t pretty, but if you wanted the latest headlines or the football scores in the era before rolling news or the internet, it was the only option.
By any measure, teletext was hugely successful and widely used. According to Teletext in Europe, in the early 1980s the average teletext user checked the service 77 times per week – spending nine minutes browsing every day. By the 1990s, 20 million were checking teletext services at least once per week – a bigger figure than many newspapers’ circulation figures.
In the age of the internet, we take it for granted that we can tap in the name of almost any TV show in history and find footage of it within seconds. Similarly, if you wanted to find out what was on page 17 of The Times on 16 October 1981, even if it isn’t online we know that somewhere there is an archive with a paper copy gathering dust.
“Despite the system’s popularity, the archived pages appear to have almost disappeared without a trace.”
But what about teletext? At the time, broadcasters were required to keep everything they broadcast (including teletext) archived for 90 days for regulatory reasons – but despite the system’s popularity, the archived pages appear to have almost disappeared without a trace. Simply from the point of completeness, this glaring omission is frustrating from an archival and historical standpoint. How can it be that there is no remaining trace of a service that was relied on by 20 million people?
According to my numerous enquiries, as far as I can tell both Teletext Ltd and the BBC didn’t routinely keep every page produced. In many cases, it appears that when text pages were updated they were simply written into the system directly over the top of the previous page – so there wasn’t even a file system as we might understand it being used. The BBC, which you might expect to be more diligent about archiving than its commercial competitors, only contains a limited number of screenshots and other material in its archive – mostly from the early days of Ceefax, or the late 1990s when it must have been clear that time was running out for the technology.
And for the viewing public, the only real traces of this once-mighty beast remain in a relatively meagre number of screenshots and video captures of “Pages from Ceefax”, which used to be broadcast overnight when BBC One and BBC Two were not broadcasting.
Teletext is surely doomed to the same fate as the likes of early Doctor Who and Dad’s Army episodes: to be erased from history, forever.
But perhaps there is a solution, thanks to a handful of dedicated archaeologists who are hard at work digging through the digital dirt.
Surprisingly, the most obvious place to begin the search is on old videotapes. Teletext was transmitted using unused bandwidth in analogue TV signals, with the data encoded into hidden “lines” in the TV pictures. The problem is that VHS tapes are not well suited to storing this extra information: VHS stores images at lower quality than they were broadcast, meaning that the information stored has degraded – similar to how a “lossy” compressed file, such as a JPEG or MP3, don’t retain as much of the data as bitmap images or WAV music files.
Continues on page 2: What’s the ideal medium for storing teletext data? S-VHS, of course