Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Ceefax was buried today - launching its digital successor was a bloody nightmare

“Hardest job in the world” – the phrase invariably employed by Paul Whitehouse’s creepy old cockney Fast Show pub bore who worshipped Frank Sinatra and claimed to have done everything from brain surgery to professional boxing – popped into my head when I heard that the BBC’s teletext information service has finally bit the dust. Launching BBC Text, the digital version, may not have been the precise equivalent of detaching lobsters from Jayne Mansfield’s bum – but ran it pretty close.

So there I am, ensconced in the BBC’s new online department, looking forward to a bit of slack time after having just led the first redesign of the BBC Homepage, but pleased to have made the transition from TV News to an interesting and expanding new area simply brimming with possibilities - when my boss gets squeezed out and I find myself at the mercy of some brand-new American chappie whom I loathe at first sight. A colleague has wasted no time hacking into the Yank’s personal files and has sent me my new boss’s proposed departmental structure. Inevitably, as I am one of the very few people who has demonstrated an ability to actually get things done, neither my name nor my current position are featured. 

Under normal circumstances I might have been tempted to fall off my chair, curl into a foetal ball and start keening like a wounded beast at that point – but it just so happens that the head of the new Interactive TV department had asked for a word the previous day, and I’ve been offered the job of launching the service that will be the digital TV equivalent of Ceefax (Ceefax can only work on analogue TV – pay attention at the back: I’ll be asking questions later). I hadn’t been that interested – but I certainly am now! I phone him and accept this new challenge. (Inevitably, the Yank and his new structure don’t last the year.)

The only problem is that the BBC Text project (I tried to christen it BBC iText, but that was rejected as insufficiently “euphonious” – no, honestly!) is generally about as welcome as a fart in a space-suit. Ceefax, with its ugly lego-brick design and garish colours is a much-loved and much-used British institution – 22 million TV viewers access it every week. Besides, the rather brilliant technology had been invented by BBC boffins back in the 1970s (the information was broadcast using the space between the 625 lines on analogue TV sets - clever, huh?) so the corporation itself has a soft spot for it, as you might for an elderly relative who’s been sending you ten bob postal orders for your birthday for 25 years. Despite that glow of affection, Ceefax is considered cosmically boring and retro by both the TV and the online crowd – and, let’s be honest, by yours truly.
When we eventually launch BBC Text on terrestrial (what would turn into Freeview after the BBC had to step in and save it) another problem becomes apparent – it’s slow. The pages look lovely compared to their Ceefax equivalents – the font is crisp and readable and the colours are far more subtle (there had been great pressure on us right at the start to make the damn thing look exactly like Ceefax!). If you visit three or four pages, it’s quicker than Ceefax - but the wait for something useful to appear on the screen is painful. The delay is the result of the pathetic processing power of the early set-top boxes, and there’s nothing our top-notch technologists can do about that. 

And everyone complains about the lack of page numbers (which a later boss of the service will re-introduce). When we launch BBC Text on Sky, the head of the Sky text team generously emails his congratulations, conceding defeat. But congratulatory messages from inside the BBC? Not a dicky-bird. I move on to sexier things after a year or so (enhanced TV programmes and video-on-demand and suchlike), and while those projects gain much greater recognition (and the odd BAFTA) I can’t rid myself of a vague sense of resentment that the digital text service has never been sufficiently appreciated. (I feel slightly vindicated when, after I leave the BBC, Victor Lewis-Smith used his Evening Standard TV review column to sing the praises of what has been rebranded as BBCi, concluding that it's a vast improvement on Ceefax.)

Over the years, BBC Text has improved in all sorts of ways, including speed (each generation of set-top box offers greater processing power) – but, unlike the BBC Homepage, it isn’t that much different from the version we launched in the ‘90s. I use it several times every day (ignoring the page numbers), and I’m glad to have been involved with it right at the start. And I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of satisfaction today when I learned that – as far as BBC TV viewers are concerned – it’s finally the only game in town.

So, farewell then, Ceefax – job well done. But, to be frank, you were once the bane of my life!

1 comment:

  1. How very nostalgic. I'd forgotten about Ceefax. One of the world's smaller steps en route from clay tablets to papyrus to movable type to the interweb.

    La famille Moss used to live in Putney opposite Alex Reid, sometime head of Prestel. He told us he wanted a Prestel set in every library and every pub as a public service whereby people could discover what they needed to know when they needed to know it. I didn't have a clue what he was talking about.

    I didn't have a clue what Minitel was about in France, either. God they must have been hacked off when the web came along.

    Looking up references to Alex and Prestel on Ceefax, I mean Google, I found this confidential BBC memo from March 1977.

    The memo has its nostalgic attractions. On a second reading it also seems very astute and prescient and I hope you enjoy it.