What happened to Ceefax and Oracle?
In today’s age of the multimedia Internet, it may seem remarkable that Ceefax and Oracle were the World Wide Web of their time.
Introduced in the 1970s, these interactive information services gave millions of people across the UK their first glimpse of on-demand digital content.
You didn’t need a computer, a phone line, or even a good knowledge of technology to use either service – just a TV with a remote control.
And while Ceefax and Oracle are no longer with us, their legacy continues …
A less ordinary life
The idea of receiving digital content via a TV screen was started by the advanced software used to support the BBC’s Ceefax service and ITV’s Oracle alternative.
Both services were launched in 1974, based on the principles of displaying coded line electronics on televisions as part of the standard analog signal received by television antennas.
Remote controls were used to enter hierarchical three-digit numbers that loaded specific pages, with 100 serving as the home page on both services.
The structure of the BBC has become familiar to millions of people – news headlines published at 101, sports starting at 300, with TV and radio guides starting at 600.
ITV and Channel Four used the largely similar Oracle system (often shown in capital letters), before it was replaced by the comparable teletext platform in early 1993.
On the same page
Regardless of your preferred platform, many of these services were similar. You can check out travel information, read local news, and even stay up to date with the latest music trivia.
News and sports were essential services, while peripheral content like personal ads, text soap operas and vacation ads came and went.
Pages containing more than one screen of information to be displayed rotated in sequence, indicating which screen (1/4) was being displayed at that precise moment.
The three-digit page structure was designed to be easy to understand, and like the dial-up internet, it took a while for a requested page to load and display.
Ironically, it was the launch of the equally slow World Wide Web in 1991 that spelled the end of Ceefax and Teletext.
The web was simply based on technology that had seen the launch of websites around the world for several years, and it was strongly reminiscent of the 1980s Post Office Prestel service.
Yet it popularized digital communications by being easier to use than the first Internet and much cheaper than Prestel, while providing multimedia capabilities far beyond teletext.
After all, Ceefax and Teletext were limited to bulky text and coarse, blocky images.
They were unable to display photos, videos or animations.
Even their beloved captioning service has been replaced with a less blocky version – although captions were arguably more accurate in the 1990s than they are today.
As the web grew in popularity, the use of digital teletext services declined until they were no longer profitable to operate.
There was something unmistakably sad about the final hours of Ceefax in particular, which had been around for almost four decades and had outlived its ITV / C4 rivals by twenty years.
The last Ceefax page was displayed just before 6 am on Monday October 22, 2012. It simply said “BBC Ceefax 1974 – 2012 Thanks for watching”.
And then it was gone.
Leave a lasting legacy
Ceefax and Teletext were phased out in 2012, but the legacy of both platforms continues to this day.
The BBC’s interactive text services continue through the Red Button service on digital terrestrial television.
It was supposed to be deactivated at the end of last year, but got a reprieve after a concerted campaign secured its place for at least a few more years.
And while fringe services will be scaled back later this year, the Red Button continues to deliver news, sports and weather through a three-digit root structure controlled by a TV remote.
Teletext also lives on in the Teletext Holidays service, which got its start when this service was launched in 1993 and has been so successful that it has moved to the Internet.
Although Ceefax and Oracle are no longer with us, their descendants seem ready to live for a while.