Consulting the Oracle 

27 July 2020 tbs.pm/70541

Pages from ORACLE

 

From Television & Radio 1985, published by the Independent Broadcasting Authority in December 1984

Over 6 million people now consult the pages of news, information and entertainment that make up the ORACLE teletext service. The number of people making use of the service has grown steadily since its first public transmission early in 1977. Then only 50 pages of text were transmitted and there were less than 100 teletext sets in the UK able to receive the service; now there are more than 350 pages and over one-and-a-half million sets. In 1977 just two transmission lines were used; during 1984, six transmission lines have been available on ITV and subsequently on Channel 4, thus reducing access time – the time it takes for a required page to come up on the screen.

What is ORACLE?

ORACLE is rather like a newspaper or magazine on the television screen. The information is arranged in ‘pages’ and covers a wide range of subjects – news, sports and business news, weather and travel news, TV guides, useful advertising services, horoscopes, film reviews, competitions and quizzes, consumer news, video and record charts and special pages for children. The full listing is to be found in the ORACLE Index which can be obtained from local TV rental or dealer showrooms, or by sending a stamped addressed envelope to ORACLE Index Department at the address given at the end of this article. The Index also appears in TVTimes.

What makes teletext different is its computer technology which allows the information on-screen to be instantly updated as the latest news occurs. No other medium can match this immediacy. From the start of morning transmissions news pages are constantly updated throughout the day until midnight at ORACLE’S ITN editorial suite. At least 1,000 editorial changes are made each day to the news, sports and business sections alone.

Editorial material is either researched by ORACLE’s journalists, taken instantly from news agency services, or supplied directly from various sources, for example travel news from the AA, British Rail, Scotland Yard, London Regional Transport and direct computer links with British Airways. Meteorological Offices in each TV region provide weather forecasts twice daily. ORACLE also features specialist contributors and celebrity writers such as Russell Grant.

In addition, advertisers provide very useful services such as details about jobs, sale prices, special offers, cut-price holidays, flight times and recipe ideas.

ORACLE transmits seven days a week, from 6 a.m. until TV closedown.

The Technology Behind ORACLE

ORACLE teletext is now received in almost two million homes. Research indicates that the average viewer watches ORACLE for about two hours a week. With the introduction of Channel 4 in November 1982, the ORACLE service was extended on to both Independent Television channels.

ORACLE stands for ‘Optional Reception of Announcements by Coded Line Electronics’. It is a system of transmitting information in a digital form to be displayed as words and graphics on the TV screen.

Teletext is a British invention for which IBA engineers were granted the 1983 Queen’s Award for Technological Achievement (jointly with BBC engineers). The UK leads the world in teletext, the last survey showing that 98% of all teletext systems in the world were to the British Standard.

The UK teletext system is currently at a stage of sophistication called Level 1. Higher levels of technological advancement (Levels 3 and 5) resulting in enhanced graphics are already possible, but would currently be far too expensive to introduce onto the mass market.

How to Obtain ORACLE

Teletext can only be received on TV sets with a teletext decoder specially built in. Whilst the ORACLE signal is received by all sets (sometimes seen as a series of dots at the top of the picture), only the teletext receiver can decode it and display it as text or graphics on the TV screen. To view a particular page the viewer must first tune in to ITV or Channel 4, then switch to ORACLE using the remote control hand set. The relevant page number must then be punched. That page will remain on the screen until a new set of instructions is given.

Subtitling of Television Programmes

A special unit at ORACLE subtitles an average of sixteen hours of networked ITV programming a week, regularly including Coronation Street and selected documentaries, plays, films, comedies and light entertainment shows. The subtitling unit also aims to subtitle news programmes in the near future.

The subtitling service, which is optional, can be obtained on a teletext set by paging 170 on ITV ORACLE and 470 on Channel 4. It is aimed primarily at the deaf and hard of hearing, who number around five million in the UK.

 

ORACLE keyboard operators at work keeping the service up-to-date. STV operated the first regional ORACLE service.

 

Regional ORACLE

Proven popularity with younger viewers has led to an expansion of ORACLE KIDS, which includes the world’s first daily teletext phone-in, in the form of a quiz inviting children to call in and answer questions about the ITN news pages.

At the moment there are three full regional teletext services in operation – in the Scottish Television, Channel Television and London (LWT and Thames) television regions. These broadcast both local editorial and advertising pages from an editorial suite and ORACLE computers based in each regional TV centre.

On 2nd April 1984 ORACLE installed mini-computers into all other TV regions to transmit limited regional teletext data. Page numbering is consistent throughout the country so that a viewer who accesses a TV or detailed weather page will receive information for that TV region only.

The regionalised pages are on air from 9.30 a.m., when the ITV area companies take over from TV-am, until closedown.

 

 

Craven House, 25/32 Marshall Street, London W1V 1LL
Tel: 01-434 3121 Telex: 8813039

Organisation. ORACLE is owned jointly by all the ITV companies operating in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Its national news, sport and business news services are supplied by ORACLE’S unit at ITN; national features and service information are produced from the centre in Craven House. ORACLE currently operates three regional units – in the Central Scotland, Channel Islands and London areas – and limited regional teletext data is available in all other ITV regions.

Directors. K. A. Killip, OBE (Chairman); Sir Brian Bailey, OBE, JP; James Gatward; Derek Hunt; Brian Tesler.

Management Team. Christopher Parker (Chief Executive); Richard Brooke (Financial Controller); Humphrey Metzgen (Sales & Marketing Controller).

Editorial Teams. Peter Hall (Editor (ITN) News, Sport, Finance); David Klein (Editor (Craven House) General Information and Features); Guy Rowston (Editor, Subtitling Unit).

Advertising Enquiries. Robbie Alexander (Sales Manager).


 

Russ J Graham writes: What amazes me about teletext is just how quickly it went from technological marvel to something broadcasters wanted shot of. Yes, viewing figures dropped with the coming of the internet, but a big pretense was made that the teletext system wasn’t compatible with digital broadcasting. This simply isn’t true, but the data lines were stripped out of Freeview pictures and people were pointed to the whizz-bang BBC Text (later BBC Red Button) service that was slower, clunkier and, at first, didn’t have page numbers so people had to laboriously trawl through menus to get to what they wanted. The ITV teletext service which replaced ORACLE in 1993 gave up entirely, leaving just a ‘Teletext Holidays’ data channel on Freeview receivers.

It was almost as if the broadcasters had collectively forgotten what teletext was for and resented its 8-bit graphics. This phasing out of teletext happened when the internet was still dial-up and smartphones hadn’t come along, so the excuse – and it was an excuse – that the internet directly replaced teletext for information-finding isn’t quite true: seeing if your train was delayed required switching on the computer, waiting for it to boot, connecting to the internet, going to the National Rail Enquiries website, typing in your departure station, waiting for the information to appear, closing the browser, disconnecting the internet, and shutting down the computer. Meanwhile, using teletext you could get the information by sitting in front of your TV and pressing 4 buttons on the remote.

I suppose this is one of the examples of progress making things less convenient, and replacing having things done for you by having to do them yourself (banking is the other thing that springs to mind: surely bank accounts used to just run themselves? Why am I now having to keep an eye on various banking apps?). But of course, I’m a cantankerous middle-aged man, so I would think this. For younger people, the very idea of asking your television for train delays and horoscopes must seem, like, you know, weird.

You Say

3 responses to this article

Jan 28 July 2020 at 11:25 am

Teletext UK could see the writing on the wall. Their whole business model was based on having a monopoly of the last minute/time-critical holiday advertising market. Once the internet reached a critical mass their fate was sealed.

Steve Gray 2 August 2020 at 8:59 pm

Evening,

My understanding of the demise of teletext has two parts :

Firstly, content requires creators – who will expect to be paid for their services.

Secondly, those creators will regard themselves as being in the journalism business, rather than in PR.

The net effect is to enfranchise a group of people who might consider themselves entitled to criticise their employers – even if done in a measured way.

You can see where I’m heading with this..

Ross Harper 21 August 2020 at 6:56 pm

I remember my brother being surprised my not buying a results paper on a Saturday night, I then realised how much reliance I had with Teletext in general.PS Oracle was the best of all the sevices.

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