Ceefax and Teletext used to be part of an almost religious daily routine for me. Every morning I’d check the pages for national football, North East football then video games, in that order. If I had a spare ten minutes or so I’d play “Bamboozle”, Teletext’s maddeningly random trivia game – only playable if you had a TV equipped with “fast-text” coloured buttons – which would give my Coco Pops-addled brain an early workout.
The service was cripplingly slow. Pages were classified by a three-digit number, and once they loaded up (which could take an age) you’d be informed how many individual, automatically timed pages were available – if you saw “1/10” you’d know you were in for a long wait. The frustration of not finishing a page before it flicked to the next one perhaps inadvertently created a generation of speed-readers.
I once watched a whole football match on Ceefax. Ninety minutes of staring at a static screen, waiting for the score to update. I’d like to say it was a zen-like meditative experience in concentration, but it wasn’t… it was just a massive waste of time.
From a copywriting perspective Ceefax and Teletext weren’t particularly noteworthy. Besides the occassional laugh-out-loud headline, usually based on a pun of some sort, the copy was unspectacular and functional – no doubt hampered by the restrictive page sizes. It wasn’t about being wowed by the language, it was about getting information as quickly as possible – and it was certainly very good at that.
Then all of a sudden (when I bought a modem for my computer), Ceefax and Teletext became instantly irrelevant to me. The internet had arrived and there was no going back.
This isn’t a misty-eyed nostalgia piece. It’s the opposite in many ways. Although I really loved Ceefax and Teletext at the time, once they were suddenly and brutally replaced by the internet I didn’t miss them at all. I didn’t miss them because there wasn’t a hole where they’d once been. If anything, the modestly controlled and ordered information that the text service offered was swamped with the limitless offerings online. There was no cold turkey phase – I’d found something bigger, better and ultimately more satisfying.
Looking back, the concept of an information portal so basic as Ceefax and Teletext is pretty astonishing these days, now that we’re so used to the boundless volume of the internet. The variety and freedom of choice is incomparable. It’s hard to see that as anything other than a positive progression.
However, in the same way that the rapidly-rotating pages on Ceefax demanded that you read quickly, the masses of alternative choice online can often mean that many readers don’t devote much attention to web copy – as they can flick onto another website in the blink of an eye. Therefore the reader is still largely dictated by the medium, and it’s the job of the copywriter to work around this. So maybe the basic process of publishing and processing information hasn’t changed as much as it might appear.
Perhaps all the years of skim-reading those black and white text pages gave readers (and writers) an education in what was just around the corner.
Teletext – the ITV/Channel 4 variant of the technology – has gamely tried to move with the times by reinventing itself as a graphically-savvy and superfast version of the old format, but it just doesn’t feel ‘right’ somehow. Ceefax – BBC’s version – is gamely trudging on, unchanged from the decrepit ‘90’s visual, towards the finish line of 2012 when the digital switchover will finally kill it off.