Oracle

ORACLE (from “Optional Reception of Announcements by Coded Line Electronics”) was a commercial teletext service first broadcast on the ITV network in the mid-late 1970s and later on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom, finally ending on both channels at 23:59 UTC on 31 December 1992.

It was developed and launched by a consortium backed by the Independent Broadcasting Authority at about the same time as the BBC’s Ceefax service. Due to the lack of available receivers, exact launch dates have been left obscure. Receivers became popular around 1980.

In Britain ORACLE, ITV’s teletext service was launched as a new advertising medium on 1 September 1981 with 180,000 teletext sets in the country. By the following year, there were then 450,000 sets in the UK and that number was projected to rise to nearly three million at the end of 1985 and confident predictions of advertising revenues as high as $90 million (£50 million).

ORACLE moved away from being an experimental engineering department and more towards being a content provider. Under the original plans for the ITV franchise renewal, they were to have been scrapped at the end of 1992 and the few scan lines they used given to the highest bidder. ORACLE successfully campaigned for the creation of a franchise for the teletext service on ITV and Channel 4, only to find themselves outbid by Teletext Ltd., a consortium originally comprising Associated Newspapers, Koninklijke Philips Electronics N.V. and Media Ventures International, who started broadcasting at midnight on New Year’s Day 1993.


 

Fully-electronic version

The idea was later taken up again, this time in a digital and on-screen form, under the new name of CEEFAX, and the new system was announced in October 1972, and following test transmissions in 1972–74, the Ceefax system went live on 23 September 1974 with thirty pages of information. Created in the United Kingdom in the early 1970s by the Philips Lead Designer for VDUs, John Adams whose design was given to the BBC so they could start transmission. BBC was working on ways of providing televisual subtitles for deaf people, it was the first teletext system in the world. James Redmond, the BBC’s Director of Engineering at the time, was a particular enthusiast. Other broadcasters soon took up the idea, including the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), who had developed the incompatible ORACLE teletext system, at around the same time. Before the Internet and the World Wide Web become popular, Ceefax pages were often the first location to report a breaking story or headline.

After technical negotiations, the two broadcasters settled in 1974 on a single standard, different from both Ceefax and ORACLE, which ultimately developed into World System Teletext (1976), and which remained in use for analogue broadcasts until 2012. The display format of 24 rows by 40 columns of characters was also adopted for the Prestel system.

The technology became the standard European teletext system and replaced other standards, including the Antiope system formerly used in France.

In 1983, Ceefax started to broadcast computer programs, known as telesoftware, for the BBC Micro (a home computer available in the United Kingdom). The telesoftware broadcasts stopped in 1989. A similar idea was the French C Plus Direct satellite channel which used different, higher speed technology to broadcast PC software.

The basic technology of Ceefax remained compatible with the 1976 unified rollout; system elaborations in later years were made such that earlier receivers were still able to do a basic decode of pages, but would simply ignore enhanced information rather than showing corrupted data.


 

Closure

Until 2012, the BBC’s Ceefax service was still providing information on topics covering News, Sport, Weather, TV Listings and Businesses. The pages were kept up to date until the UK digital switchover was completed on Tuesday 23 October 2012.

In 2002, the BBC stopped broadcasting Ceefax on the digital satellite Sky Digital service, but later brought back a limited service including a TV schedule for BBC One and BBC Two; and subtitles.

The BBC has tried to reuse the old Ceefax page numbers where possible on the Freeview and digital satellite BBC Red Button Ceefax-replacement services.[4]

It was announced that Ceefax would not be replaced when the analogue signal was switched off in October 2012. The BBC Red Button service is seen as an alternative to Ceefax and since 2007 the number of regions with a Ceefax supported analogue signal had declined as digital switchover progressed across the UK. As of the end of 2011, three-quarters of the UK TV regions had completed or were in the process of being switched over.

Ceefax was the last remaining text service available via analogue TV transmissions in the UK, as ITV and Channel 4’s Teletext service closed in December 2009. Channel 5’s “Five Text” ancillary service closed in 2011. A limited analogue teletext service through ITV and Channel 4 was still available through terrestrial until the digital switchover was completed on 23 October 2012.

At 23:32:19 BST on 23 October 2012, Ceefax was switched off after 38 years of providing news, weather and sports information when the Olympic Games champion Dame Mary Peters turned off the last analogue TV signal in Northern Ireland. A series of graphics on Ceefax’s front page marked its 38 years on the BBC. BBC News’ website also has memories of Ceefax.

In a tongue-in-cheek article on the 2017 general election, The Guardian gave political satirist Lord Buckethead a “Best Policy” award for the latter’s manifesto pledge to bring back Ceefax.


 

In-vision broadcasts

At various times of the day, ORACLE pages were broadcast in vision, albeit mostly on Channel 4, although occasionally pages were shown during the night on ITV.

Channel 4
4-Tel on View
Shown between 1983 and January 1997, 4-Tel on View was a magazine featuring previews of the day’s Channel 4’s programmes as well as back-up information and other features, such as the adventures of a dog called 4-T, from Channel 4’s own “4-Tel” teletext service. The transmissions were especially notable from 1986 when animated graphics were introduced. Although the service was transmitted alongside Oracle on Channel 4, it was editorially and legally separate and operated for Channel 4 by Intelfax Ltd.

From 1983 until the start of Channel 4’s breakfast television service in April 1989, the 4-Tel magazine ran for 15 minutes and was repeated several times each day with transmissions airing at increasingly earlier times of the day as Channel 4 expanded its broadcast hours. Following the start of breakfast television, however, 4-Tel on View was shown in a single block before the start of programmes. After ORACLE lost its franchise on 31 December 1992, 4-Tel on View continued to be shown and from 1 January 1993 until Channel 4 started 24-hour broadcasting in January 1997, 4-Tel on View was shown throughout Channel 4’s entire closedown period.

Oracle on View
Between 1983 and 1989, Channel 4 broadcast pages from the ORACLE service on the air. Shown in 15-minute bursts, and alternating with 4-Tel on View and showings of the ETP-1 test card, the pages were seen during the day when Channel 4 was not broadcasting actual programmes. Initially, the pages shown were from one aspect of the ORACLE service with the subject matter changing every so often. In September 1987, Oracle on View became a news service, adopting this format at the same time that Channel 4 expanded its broadcast hours to accommodate the transfer of ITV Schools to Channel 4. Oracle on View ended when Channel 4 started broadcasting breakfast television.

ITV
Jobfinder
During the late 1980s and mid-1990s, many ITV companies broadcast job vacancies and related information during overnight periods and the service were provided by broadcasting the relevant ORACLE page in-vision. Central was the first company to do this, beginning in April 1986, with Yorkshire following in January 1987. By late 1988, all of ITV was broadcasting a 24-hour service and many ITV companies introduced a Jobfinder service at this point, broadcasting the pages between 4 am and 5 am, later 4:30 am to 5:30 am. By the mid-2000s, however, all of the Jobfinder services had ended.

Daybreak
For a short period in 1987, prior to the start of 24-hour broadcasting on ITV, a selection of teletext pages was broadcast in-vision prior to the start of TV-am. These pages mostly consisted of news and information about TV-am.


 

Closure

ORACLE began to disappear at 23:31:09 on 31 December 1992, with the outer border of pixels turning black. This process continued until 23:55:55 when only a white square was left, with the text ORACLE gone 1978-1992. It was then replaced by the service from Teletext Ltd. ORACLE did not carry television listings beyond its midnight closing time on New Year’s Eve 1992. It merely stated, “00:00 the end of Oracle, now the nightmare begins.”.

 

 

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