Nostalgia corner: teletext

I want to share with my US readers a little known thing (at least over here) that goes by the name of teletext. This was (still is) a system in the UK that was sort of like the Internet before the Internet. Way back in the 70s the BBC invented a system for transmitting textual information over broadcast TV.

Basically, you take a 40-column, 24-line screen of characters (here “characters” means alphanumeric symbols but also various codes for blocky graphic shapes in 7 foreground/background colours) and you encode it in the PAL analogue TV signal. It lives in the space between frames – technically known as the vertical blanking interval. Once you’ve done that, you simply broadcast the set of pages cyclically, and the TV viewer can hit the “text” button on their TV remote, type in a page number, and wait a few seconds for the TV to receive that page.

In the early 80s, not every TV had the ability to decode and display the teletext signal, but ours did. When you flipped into text mode, the default was page 100 which was the master index. The major subject indices were on the hundreds, with news being first. The news pages in particular often were themselves subdivided so that when you punched in the first news page (101) you’d see, e.g. 5/14 indicating you were on subpage 5 of 14. Each time page 101 was rebroadcast in the cycle (approximately every minute) you’d get a new subpage and gradually work through the news story. Sometimes you had to read quickly before the page changed – but if you were a slow reader, you could always press the “hold” button which prevented the TV teletext buffer from updating. The downside was that when you unheld, you would usually have missed the next subpage and would skip ahead in the story.

Teletext was (is) brilliant. Just like the Internet today – you could get news, sports, weather, TV guide, movie times, flight arrivals and road travel info, and subtitles for TV programmes. We liked to turn on subtitles (page 888) for a lot of things – they were just fun – especially for live events like the Eurovision Song Contest. On such occasions it became obvious that the people doing the live subtitles were working with some kind of phonetic input system, and many a howler would result from near misses with what was actually said!

But the fun and games sections of teletext were the best thing of course. In the early days, this was limited to control codes which hid parts of the page until you pressed “reveal” on the remote. But around the early 90s or so, someone had the bright idea of “fastext” whereby the TV could store multiple pages and precache pages in order to quickly jump to them according to a simple hyperlink system. The remote had four colour buttons: red, blue, green and yellow. Each page could have four hyperlinks therefore, accessed by pressing the fastext buttons.

The standard use of fastext was to assign forward/back/subject index/master index type functionality to the four buttons, but fastext also opened up a whole world of fun and games in the form of Bamboozle – a multi-choice quiz where 3 of the buttons would go to the “wrong” page and the correct answer button would go to the next question.

We played Bamboozle every day for years in the 90s. We loved Bamber Boozler, the avuncular blocky yellow host. Getting all the questions right was surprisingly difficult, and we normally scored in the high teens (out of twenty). Getting all 20 first time, which we did a couple of times a week, was cause for pride. We did figure out a way to cheat: because there was still a finite time between displaying the question page and receiving the fastext-jump pages, if you were quick, you could have multiple guesses with the colour buttons and figure out which one went to the “odd one out” page number. This technique was by no means foolproof though – often the TV would receive the required pages quickly (especially the “wrong” page it seemed to often get almost instantly – no doubt by design) and then your attempt at a quick cheat was worse than a considered guess – serve you right!

From time to time I still miss teletext – the Internet hasn’t quite made it into the living room yet, even though I have a Wii which means I can technically browse on my TV. It’s just not as integrated, simple, or niche-perfect as teletext is. Next time you’re in the UK, turn on your hotel TV and hit that text button…

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