Today marks the closing of a nearly 76-year chapter in the history of television – the final three transmitters and their relays are being switched over to digital television tonight in Northern Ireland. The first production ‘high definition’ (that is 405 lines) black-and-white television service was introduced by the BBC on 2 November 1936, and although the number of lines has changed and a chrominance signal added to provide colour television, a lot of the technology used in analogue television is very similar today as it was then. Along with it goes several other related technologies which only existed on analogue TV, the first of which is NICAM 728 Digital Stereo (which stands for Near-Instantaneous Companded Audio Multiplex, and 728kbit/s was the bitrate) which introduced stereo sound on UK television for the first time in the 1986. The second is PDC (Programme Delivery Control) which was a way of instructing video recorders when to start or stop for a given programme, and was broadcast as teletext packets, so when CEEFAX gets switched off tonight, so does PDC. (Freeview does have digital equivalents of both of these of course).
It’s nice to see that BBC1 Northern Ireland and Ulster Television (UTV) are jointly producing a commemorative programme tonight to mark the occasion, something which none of the other English nations and regions did to my knowledge. It’s being shown on BBC1 Northern Ireland tonight at 2235, finishing at 2330, at which point the analogue signal will be switched off, taking with it over 75 years of history and good old CEEFAX.
So, as Phillip Schofield used to say a lot in the Broom Cupboard when BBC1 NI wished to opt out of the end of Children’s BBC – “Goodbye Northern Ireland” – for analogue television tonight in NI, it really is goodbye.
Don’t forget to switch off your television set.
This Wednesday sees the end of analogue television in the British Isles, both in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland when all the remaining transmitters in both NI and Ireland are switched to digital. One of the casualties of this is the Ceefax service, which began on 23 September 1974. And although some European countries still broadcast World System Teletext services on their DVB-T transmissions, the UK and Ireland do not, choosing to use the MHEG-5 based digital text services instead. Although the Ceefax service will be continuing to work up until pretty much the end of analogue transmissions at around midnight on Tuesday 23 October, another British institution is ceasing its broadcasts tonight, and that is ‘Pages from Ceefax’, which was basically a rolling broadcast of what was orignally P198 or 298 depending on channel, but is now I think P152. This page is a special magazine page consisting of various pages from the main teletext service, and can actually be viewed on a real teletext set as well as it being “in vision”.
The BBC has been broadcasting Pages from Ceefax ever since I can remember, presumably because the BBC thought that it was a good way of showcasing the teletext service to viewers who did not have a teletext set. Various teletext decoders were used along the way, from the original ones which used a Texas Instruments TIFAX (74S262) character generator (which were easy to spot because of the curious designs of the 6 and 9 characters), all the way up to the Mullard/Philips SAA5050 chips, with the ‘BBC Mode 7’ character designs in the 80s and the new SAA5243 character set with thicker horizontal lines on the numbers introduced at roughly the same time as Fastext sets were coming on the market. These days, it’s very hard to find an analogue TV in existence which doesn’t have some kind of World System Teletext decoder in it, but when PfC was first introduced, not many people had them and they were expensive.
Although most of England, Wales and Scotland lost their Ceefax service some time ago, Northern Ireland still has it on analogue BBC2 until the end of Tuesday 23 October, and so the early hours of Monday 22 October sees the last broadcast of PfC, which is on BBC2 between 04.45 and 06.00. (For some reason, there is no PfC on Tuesday 23 October which probably should have been the last one.) The end of an era, and I somehow don’t think ‘Pages from the BBC Red Button’ is going to replace it, since there’s no need – or at least I can’t think of any DVB-T TVs or set-top boxes which don’t have the feature built in.
Goodbye Pages from Ceefax, and all that (some might say “cheesy”) library music that was played alongside it.
As I write this, we are just minutes away from the official switch-off of analogue television in England, with the three main transmitters in the Tyne Tees region, Pontop Pike, Bilsdale and Chatton due to be switched to digital starting at midnight tonight. Wales and Scotland have already been fully switched, and the only transmitters left are those of Northern Ireland, who will switch at midnight on October 24, along with the transmitters in the Republic of Ireland who switch over at the same time.
It’s odd to think we’ve been waiting a long time for this moment to come, and it’s finally here, with Ceefax just under a month to live until it’s finally switched off for good. Goodnight, and don’t forget to switch off your television set.