Today, Teletext on ITV & Channel Four closed down. The decision was taken by it’s owners, the Daily Mail & General Trust, due to loss of advertising sales in the face of unrelenting competition from the Internet. Although analogue teletext and it’s charmingly clunky 1970s graphics were always going to disappear by 2012 as part of digital switchover, it was expected that Teletext would continue in it’s digital form, just as the BBC’s Ceefax is being replaced by services under the digital red button. But because Ofcom decided that Teletext would have to pay for it’s digital terrestrial bandwith and continue with its public service commitment of providing a full news service, the owners decided to pull the plug. From now on, the company will concentrate on the parts of the buisness which still make money – holiday and bookmakers adverts.
It’s been a long time since I’ve actually used Teletext – or teletext of any form (how annoying that they named the service the same as the medium, like a TV channel called TV, which I’m sure the people behind Dave will think is a good idea) but it really does feel like the end of an era, and quite a sad day. These days, when we easily find virtually any piece of information we’d ever need on a mobile phone, it’s hard to imagine the important place teletext had in the home. Long before Jeff Stelling and chums were on Sky Sports, Saturday afternoons were spent on the Ceefax football page, urging the scores to change. In the days before the Internet, pages like flight arrivals information or the latest holiday deals were hugely useful and felt like the cutting edge of technology. The TV “now and next” page was useful years before the arrival of the digital EPG. While Sky News was in it’s infancy, I remember finding out about many major news events by turning on teletext. Yes, it was very slow and there were few more excruciating things than waiting for your page to come around. And, yes, if your reception was slightly dodgy then the pag£ wou!d 0ft n b%2 ej 2=£%÷%÷%÷/?d7i$
But there really will be something lost forever when teletext has gone.
Much like the difference between the BBC and commercial television in the 1980s and 90s, while Ceefax was the old dependable but rather dull service, all the fun stuff was on Teletext and the original, much-loved Oracle. There was Sam Brady, the pseudonym used by the TV reviewers. Many readers, who thought he was a real person, were glad to see him transfer to the new franchise holder when Teletext started up. Oracle even had it’s own daily soap opera, Park Avenue. Planet Sound had a thriving community of music fans on it’s letters page, years before online forums. Teletext’s children’s pages had their own comic strip, Turner the Worm.
And then there was Bamboozle. Who else remembers the thrill of getting your first Fastext TV and being able to use the coloured buttons relating to links at the bottom of the screen? The best use of this was to play along with Bamber Boozler’s multiple choice quiz, where you’d press the button matching the colour of the answer you want to choose, seemingly a perfectly simple thing now, but revolutionary when it was introduced.
But the greatest contribution Teletext gave us was it’s video games pages, Digitiser. It had video games news, reviews and charts. But it wasn’t really about that. Paul Rose and Tim Moore, better known as Mr Biffo and Mr Hairs, took the irreverent humour traditionally found in many British computer magazines and pushed the boundaries of both taste and sanity as far as possible. Regular, unforgettable, characters included the legendary Man With a Long Chin, Insincere Dave, the Cussing Snakes, Fat Sow and of course Mr T. Despite being only transcripts, Phoning Honey’s calls to electronics stores were among the funniest prank calls I’ve ever known. But despite the humour, the quality of the gaming journalism was top notch, earning a reputation for honest reviews which did undeserving games no favours.
Although Teletext closed today, Digitiser closed nearly 7 years ago. With it’s reputation for near-the-knuckle humour, senior editors and management at the company (owned by the Daily Mail group, don’t forget) were itching to close Digitiser for many years, but couldn’t due to it’s huge popularity. At one point, Mr Hairs was fired, with Biffo kept on but later told to remove all humour and do straight games reviews only. Audiences immediately plummeted and after receiving thousands of letters Teletext eventually asked for it to be restored to it’s former glory at the end of 2002. But Biffo felt the damage had already been done, and brought Digitiser back for one last hurrah before bowing out for good.
As a fitting tribute, I’m sure you’ll agree, to Teletext on the day of it’s closure, I’ll leave you with the final image from the final page of the final day of Digitiser: