Whitehaven loses Ceefax

Posted on 14 November 2007 in BBC red button, Television (7 comments)

In the early hours of Wednesday 14 November, an entire town lost something no one else has lost. Teletext and Ceefax.

Whitehaven in Cumbria became the first place to complete the process and so comes the true test now of what the public really think of the digital equivalents. There will be some who love them, some who loathe them and some who just put up with it. The exact ratios of which will no doubt be revealed.

It's something I'll be watching from a personal and professional level with interest, especially as there's a team of people sitting near me in the office working on Digital Switchover, whose meetings I occasionally go to as some of the things they are looking at will affect what I'm doing as part of the process of trying to launch BBCi services on the forthcoming Freesat.

Whitehaven wasn't a huge technical problem for us as they're using existing digital infrastructure, however when the next region changes over in October 2008, there will be more to it. Huge amounts of technical reconfiguration will be needed as the BBC (and other broadcasters) will be re-arranging how their services are transmitted. This will only affect areas that are switching over - regions which still have analogue and digital TV will use the old set up - meaning that we essentially have to double everything up for five years until the switchover process is completed. Over coming months a crack team will be putting all the many pieces in place.

The full details of how the new configuration will be set up, isn't yet known. The overall amount of space is going to increase, however there's also aims to launch a BBC HD channel on Freeview, and the fact that CBBC wants to broadcast until 9pm in the evening which could eat into that. The changes could, in theory BBCi could get more space. Or it could even get less. Or it could be the same, but organised differently on a technical level. Even when everyone knows what is happening, there's the non-trivial matter of making it all work.

Oh and then there's the content. There's some content on Ceefax not currently on BBCi (and indeed, BBCi has much that Ceefax doesn't have). That's due to the fact that the two are run by different groups of people and in the past (way before I joined the team) decisions were made to have things like CBeebies games rather than displaying 1000 shares. Those little issues are now being looked at again by another bunch of people - complete with a pile of research data. And when they've made their decisions, there will be a batch of work to do getting content onto BBCi, which I know from past experience, is never as easy as people might think!

In my experience, content (or specifically, the lack of something that people think should be there) is one that generally gets people annoyed the most. Which is why the whole Whitehaven switch-off will be revealing. Where Whitehaven leads, others follow. And what Whitehaven thinks, others will think also.

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steveboswell said:

Well I certainly don't envy those decision makers – the great Licence Fee-paying public are a difficult bunch to please at the best of times!

The problem of what to put in (and what to leave out) boils down to the amount of capacity the BBC has to play with on DTT. It's true that the Beeb has more than any other broadcaster to play with, but it's also being put under a lot of pressure by forces both inside (CBBC, HD) and outside the corporation (will the BBC be forced to carry S4C, Five, the new Gaelic TV service, etc. after switchover?).

Personally, I think it would be a better idea to leave Freeview pretty much as it is now in terms of the services carried... leave HD on satellite, where it can get all the hours it needs. Mind you, that's easy for me to say: I don't have to deal with the complainants...

Posted on 14 November 2007 at 2:54 PM

Heinz said:

Easy solution (and spectrum saved) - scrap digital text and broadcast teletext instead (as Sky and a number of other broadcasters do on digital satellite channels).

Posted on 15 November 2007 at 8:14 PM

Andrew Bowden said:

Well it's one idea, but I doubt it will save spectrum - everything takes up space, and that includes "analogue" text. Whilst I don't know the exact details, I suspect you'd find that putting Ceefax on digital satellite would require more bandwidth as it would have to be broadcast for each channel. In contrast one copy of BBCi will sit alongside around six channels. (I am of course, happy to be proved wrong on the exact playout details!)

One other problem is that on Freeview, the specification for the set top boxes has never included teletext - that's not to say that some boxes can't handle it and pass it through to the TV (I'm sure some can). However they don't have to and no one really knows if they can!

Posted on 16 November 2007 at 9:14 AM

CentralUser said:

What would be really good, would be to have the ski/ snow reports on BBCi. Oh and a chicken korma and pilau rice as well please.

Posted on 24 November 2007 at 11:30 PM

David Haggas said:

I've always argued that teletext should have been broadcast on digital platforms at least until content and speed issues have been solved. It is clear that some set top boxes might not resolve the signal but it is still being broadcast on analogue so why not get it out to as many people as possible? I doubt very much there is a bandwidth issue but wait to be proved wrong. I think it's more a case of trying to make viewers wake up to BBCi - or forcing them in the case of Whitehaven. Teletext may be old technology, but it is hugely popular and still used by many European broadcasters on their digital platforms. The BBC should be one of them.

Posted on 27 December 2007 at 10:59 AM

Andrew Bowden said:

Support for analogue text services was never included in the specifications for digital terrestrial television. How many set top boxes and IDTVs would actually support it is highly debatable. True, some boxes are based on hardware sold in other countries where such support is required, however they also have a different middleware built in to them. Who really knows how many people could get their set top boxes to play ball.

If it was possible, I'm sure there would be bandwidth issues - every channel on analogue takes up the same space regardless of whether there is text or not. This isn't true on digital, where the signal is compressed. A picture with the associated text content would (I presume) not compress as well due to the addition of the extra data broadcast, and would therefore take up more space. How much more is another question.

But it has to be said, the decisions were made back in the 1990s to phase out Ceefax and "analogue" Teletext. That decision certainly isn't going to be reversed now. The set top boxes and TVs are now more than capable of giving Ceefax a run for its money speed-wise - and have been for a few years. I've got two at home which I'm convinced outperform Ceefax quite significantly.

It took a while, but the performance is certainly there now.

Posted on 28 December 2007 at 10:27 AM

William T said:

From a discussion about digital switchover on Five Live just now:

Simon Mayo: "CEEFAX is rubbish on digital, why is that?, says Jim in Banbury"

Man from Digital UK: "Jim in Banbury has stumped me, I will go back and look at that."

(I also remember a phone-in on local radio a year or so ago where someone from RED BEE who was confused about multiple calls asking why various set-top boxes were always rebooted at a certain time each day.)

Posted on 4 January 2008 at 2:19 PM

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