Just about every television in Europe has a “teletext” button. Push the button on your television remote and you’re digitally transported to the early 1980s. Against a black background, brief news dispatches are spelled out in bright, thickly pixelated text reminiscent of an Atari game title screen. As old-fashioned as it looks, the news you see isn’t from the ’80s—it’s from right now. Almost four decades after it started, teletext remains almost exactly the same now as it was at its birth.
Teletext, first used by the BBC in 1972, is a technology that was developed to take advantage of a previously unused bit of digital space between picture frames. In this space, programmers could send extra information to television sets besides actual TV shows—closed captioning text, for instance, or news alerts. Eventually the service grew to include hundreds of pages of text, from weather reports to sports scores to airline information. And the technology spread to other countries, too, though experiments with teletext in the US were brief and ultimately unsuccessful.
Today, many teletext services throughout the world are on the wane, as they are replaced by sleeker news services online and mobile technology. In the United Kingdom—where teletext was born—the BBC will shut down its teletext service later this year, to go along with its switch from analog to digital service. But, curiously, teletext is still going strong in Scandinavia—much to its providers’ bemusement.
Eva Hamilton, CEO of Sveriges Television, Sweden’s public television network, says that SVT’s version of teletext is “by far the biggest media in Sweden.” She laughs and says, “We say every year, ‘it’s going to decrease’ it doesn’t!” Two million people in Sweden access teletext through their televisions every day, and about 3.5 million do so every week. Sweden’s total population is only 9.4 million. Finland and Norway have similar percentages of the population using teletext regularly: about a fifth of the country every day, and about a third every week. Denmark’s share is even larger: 2.6 million people access teletext every week, which is almost half of the country’s population.
“We’ve been waiting for it to die for ten, fifteen years,” says Erik Bolstad, head of new media services for Norway’s public television and radio network, “and it just doesn’t.”
This all may seem surprising—especially if you take into consideration that the Scandinavian population is among the most web-connected in the world, has among the highest news readership in the world, and has the most newspapers per capita in the world catering to them. With so much media to choose from, why is this old-fashioned, clunky-looking medium still so popular?
One possible reason: old habits die hard. When teletext arrived in Scandinavian homes in the late 1970s, news was delivered via radio, television, and daily newspaper. Teletext was a fast, easy way to check headlines and sports scores. When personal computers made their way into homes, early dial-up connections were frustratingly slow, of course, so teletext was still preferable. Now, generations that grew up with the teletext habit continue to use the service. And even with the development of mobile technology and widespread broadband Internet access, teletext’s old audience hasn’t abandoned it; they just use it in addition to online news sources.
In fact, all of the major publicly funded broadcast networks in Scandinavia have now put their teletext feeds online: Finland’s YLE, Norway’s NRK, Denmark’s DR, and Sweden’s SVT. The format of the online version remains the same as the television version, with pages accessed one at a time through a three-digit page number entered at the top of the screen. Despite its availability online, though, most news producers in these networks say that more than 90 percent of their regular teletext audience still accesses it through their television sets.
“I think the reason teletext is still so popular is that it is so accessible,” says Bolstad. “It takes a shorter time for you to push one button and see whether anything has happened in the world than it does for you to go to a news site.”