The BBC’s text service Ceefax celebrates its thirty-fifth birthday today, but it’s a celebration that is tinged with sadness as it is to be the last significant anniversary celebrated by the antiquated service, which is to be phased out in line with the stopping of the analogue television signal in Britain in 2012. Ceefax holds a special place in the affections of football supporters of a certain age. Who amongst us hasn’t spent at least one Saturday afternoon feverishly hitting the buttons on the remote control trying to find out the score?
When it was launched in 1974, Ceefax (the name, of course, is a phonetic spelling of the words “See Facts”) was very much the future, today. Until that point, football supporters had a very limited range of ways in which they could find out the latest football scores or results. Television largely acted as if the game didn’t exist if it wasn’t Saturday afternoon, sport on the radio was broadcast on BBC Radio 2 but had to share itself with the likes of housewives’ favourite DJs such as Jimmy Young and Terry Wogan rather than Radio 4, where the news and opinion was. In the 1970s, football wasn’t news very often.
Newspapers were available the next day, but Ceefax was a godsend to those that wanted the news with any degree of immediacy. It often felt (although it was, in truth, more down to technological constraints) as if someone on the Ceefax design team had found a way to exquisitely torture football fans. The pages took what felt like an age to update and ran in a chronological order, meaning that if you were looking away when your team’s score was being updated, you may have to wait another five minutes for it to come around again.
Watching the football on Ceefax became an art form in itself, with tension usually mounting in the back of the viewer’s head because of doubts in the back over the head over the accuracy of the information on screen. How far behind were they running when updating goals? Had they missed one out? With television, radio and the news press, you knew – by and large – that someone was there or had been there, and that they were relaying the information to you directly. With Ceefax, however, the sensation was different. We all knew in the back of our heads that there wasn’t someone from Ceefax sitting in the stands at every match in Britain, updating the screens as things happened. What if there had been some form of catastrophic communication breakdown and the live score on screen in front of you was actually twenty minutes out of date?
In some respects, it is surprising that Ceefax has lasted as long as it has. The writing was on the wall for the medium as soon as usage of the internet started to grow, and its continuing presence at a time that digital television was also proliferating is even more remarkable. The vast expansion of the media has largely rendered it redundant. Even for those without internet access, Saturday afternoons can now be spent in the company of two different television shows (“Soccer Saturday” and “Score”) bringing you live updates from matches, with Sky Sports having mastered the art of post-modernism in football in allowing viewers to watch their pundits watch football matches on the television.
Against these considerably more polished rivals, Ceefax has started to look more and more like an irrelevance, and when the analogue television signal is switched off once and for all in 2012, then Ceefax will go with it. In an age during which we can get news and information at the touch of button, it is perhaps right that it is laid to rest. For those of us that have spent Saturday afternoons on tenterhooks as the latest scores ambled around or found ourselves peering at a screen full of random characters, trying to decipher them because bad reception has left Ceefax looking all but incomprehensible, today is perhaps a day to reflect upon a slightly simpler time. Time has moved on and the need and desire for instant information is now greater than ever. Ceefax was the birth of our access to the latest scores, and we should thank the BBC for it.
The BBC has written a thirty-fifth anniversary tribute to Ceefax here.