Changing the page 

31 December 2017 tbs.pm/14479

On the 25th anniversary of the end of ITV’s pioneering ORACLE teletext service, Jason Robertson looks at ORACLE’s last day and the opening seconds of its successor

 

 

ORACLE, Independent Television’s teletext service, was developed by the IBA as an experiment with sending digital data along with the regular analogue picture, using some free space outside of the normal viewing area. It starting broadcasting regularly in 1975, having previously been tested since April 1973.[1]

As of 1975, ORACLE was made the responsibility of the ITV companies,[2] which owned it.[3]

Once compromise on the technical specification was reached with the BBC’s Ceefax teletext system in 1976, ORACLE grew to provide a comprehensive service on ITV and later, Channel Four.

And so it was.

 

 


 

The 1990 Broadcasting Act

ORACLE was an independent television franchise like any other, and became subject to the 1990 Broadcasting Act’s controversial method of choosing ITV franchises based on the ‘highest sealed bid as long as a quality threshold was met’ scheme.

Although Thames and TV-am were the most high-profile casualties of the Act, ORACLE too lost its franchise because it bid too low. How much ORACLE bid isn’t widely known, but it was less than the £8.2 million bid that Teletext UK Ltd submitted.

As a result, on 30 April 1992 it was announced that ORACLE has lost its franchise to Teletext. Between then and 1 January 1993 a service still had to be provided. One can imagine that investment in the service would have ground to a halt during this time.

 

A viewer is assured that subtitles will continue once ORACLE’s franchise is concluded[4]


 

The last day

 

An editorial goodbye[5]

The full list of names (on what was the ‘What’s New’ page) is:

  • Brian Ainsworth; Tricia Allison; Robbie Alexander; Jane Anderson; Vivienne Arendt; Peter Bailey; Max Benato; Steve Bramble; Johanna Briffa; Kim Broodie; Val Brownbill; Robbie Burns; Alex Cadell; Julie Chandler; Lisa Clapp; Liz Cullen; Andrew Dacres; Shelley Dargis; Mike Dempsey; Chris Drew; Gina Moore; Juliet Elliston; Helen Emms; Sandy Fordham; Cristina Fontoura; Jas Grewal; Graham Gwyther; Peter Hall; Jill Hartley; Gill Harvey; Geoff Harwood; Serena Hennessy; Gareth Herincx; Louise Hettiche; Caroline Hill; Ruth Holden; Jon Homer; April Hurney; Tony Jimenez; Frances Jones; Verity Jowett; David Klein; Corinne Knight; Sarah Kovandzich; John Lydon; Bonnie Maguire; Des Margetson; Penny Meade; David Mellor; Jayne Miller; Greg Nunes; Christopher O’Connor; Phil Patricks; Steve Pollard; Stuart Ramage; Steve Regan; James Roberts-Thomson; Diane Robertson; Paul Ruse; Wayne Sheppard; Richard Shipp; Pauline Shodeke; Karen Smyth; Andy Swales; Celia Stewart; Dave Strangwige; Sarah Taylor; Lucie Townsend; Ginny Warner; Catherine Welsh; Eric White; Keith Wilson; Ted Wilson.

 

ORACLE doesn’t seem to have much faith in Teletext Ltd.’s capabilities[5]

 

There were a few retrospectives and farewell messages from the writers of the various magazines: TV Plus, in particular:

 

 


 

The Changing of the Guard

The ORACLE franchise was due to expire at the end of 1992, and in its last half-an-hour ORACLE started to die a lingering death.

 

Well, that’s it. In a sequence reminiscent of turning off an old TV set, where the picture got smaller until only a white dot remained as the phosphors cool, ORACLE is at an end.[5]

 

In the last five minutes, the teletext equivalent of the ‘white dot’ was shown. Very sad, of course. But 1978-1992? ORACLE was broadcasting before then. I guess that 1978 was when ORACLE transitioned into a separate company in its own right rather than a test transmission.

Thanks to the modern technology of teletext recovery from videotape, we can replay exactly what happened that night. This is what happened in the London area. At the same time, we lost Thames in favour of Carlton.

2359:59 The ORACLE ‘white dot’ as above

0000:00 scrambled header clock as switching takes place; ORACLE is turned off. After a few seconds, the clock appears again, still in ORACLE format, “0000:00”. Then, at 0000:13:

A couple of minutes pass with the emergency, fall-back service interruption pages. Only P100-P199 are shown, each showing this test page.

00:01:50 The clock reads **:**:**

00:02:10 Teletext Ltd is patched in. The first page is:

Then strange things happen. P370 is supposed to be the Digitiser index page, but it shows:

This is supposed to be on page 373.

Then, at 00:06:38, we get the index page as it’s supposed to be –

Strange indeed: the page server must have had some very early teething troubles! I’m fairly sure there are other oddities in those first few seconds.

And there it was. 1993 was here, and the 1990 Broadcasting Act was taking effect: The IBA was gone; Thames was gone; TV-am was gone; TVS and TSW were gone.

And ORACLE was gone.

Personally, I missed some of its features, and its dependable style; but Teletext Ltd was a vastly expanded service, with some great features of its own – standing out are Digitiser and Bamboozle, still fondly remembered today.

Eventually though, the internet came for Teletext Ltd, and teletext on ITV and Channel Four became a shell of bookmaker’s advertising pages. Teletext Ltd gave up on the teletext medium on 15th December 2009. They were contracted to provide the service up to 2014, and on failing to provide a service were fined £225,000 by Ofcom. One can only assume that the fine was smaller than the losses that would have been made over the remaining five-year period.

Ofcom did not re-advertise the Channel 3 teletext franchise.[6]

It can be argued that ORACLE had the smaller service, but one thing is for sure: it certainly knew how to go out in style.


Jason Robertson is a teletext archaeologist, recovering heretofore lost teletext services from videotape. He is also a Transdiffusion Editor, having maintained the sub-TV website since the late 1990s. sub-TV is now a part of Transdiffusion’s ATV website, AYTEEVEE.

 


Footnotes

  1. McKenzie, G.A. (1983) ‘Teletext – the First Ten Years’, in Gardiner, P. (ed.) IBA Technical Review 20, Developments in Teletext, London, Independent Broadcasting Authority
  2. Potter, J (1989) Independent Television in Britain, Volume 3: Politics and Control, London: Macmillan
  3. Bonner, P. with Aston, L (1998) Independent Television in Britain, Volume 5: ITV and IBA, 1981-92 The Old Relationship Changes, London, Macmillan
  4. Source: Recovery from videotape by the author
  5. a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p ORACLE Teletext Ltd., 1992. Source: videotape from Simon Winters; recovery Jason Robertson; with thanks to Kaleidoscope
  6. Ofcom (2010) ‘Report to the Secretary of State on the public teletext service’

You Say

1 response to this article

Chad 1 February 2018 at 5:19 am

The bids were:

  • Teletext, Ltd: £8.2 million
  • Oracle: £6.7 million
  • TV-am Cable TV: £6.4 million
  • Carlton/Intelfax: £3.6 million
  • Update: £3.6 million

Your comment

Enter it below