Teletext isn’t just incredibly simple to use, it’s also very simple to produce. In the newsroom, one or two people can be working on condensing the most important news into concise teletext entries while the rest of the team fills out online news stories. Both versions can go up simultaneously—although the online version will likely be filled out, while the briefer teletext version will remain just a bulletin. In Denmark’s DR, the teletext feed and the online news feed share the same CMS with the network’s own wire service, so the updates to the teletext system happen more or less automatically. In other newsrooms, like NRK’s in Norway, a writer still types the teletext in manually.
“The beauty of it is that you really have to concentrate to get the whole story across in such a limited format,” says Bolstad. “There are thirty-nine characters per line. You can’t get in forty.” (Both Twitter users and headline-writers of print publications can probably relate.)
It’s also cheap. Right now, SVT is making considerable investments into its sleek new online video player, and likewise, its sister public broadcaster Sveriges Radio into its 24-hour online news radio network, Alltid Nyheter. Yet teletext keeps plugging along, without requiring any more money or staff time than it ever has in the past. There are about half a dozen people working on SVT’s teletext version within a twenty-four hour period. Of these teletext veterans—mostly older gentlemen—CEO Eva Hamilton says, “they are quite frustrated, because the web people are young, and they are a little bit flashy, and they get all the attention all the time, [but] they know so well that their medium is by far much, much bigger than the web.”
So if teletext is still so popular, why does it still look like an Atari game? Quite simply, the technology doesn’t allow any major changes. Bolstad says that in NRK, the code was standardized in the early 1980s, and the standard has stayed the same. The given structure won’t allow for any more pages that there already are (900), or for a sharper image on the text or graphics. In theory, this standard code could be updated, but since everyone at NRK has been waiting for it to die, it hasn’t made sense to put the time or money into an update.
People don’t seem to mind, though. “Teletext has not developed at all for 30 years,” Heikki Lammi, head of YLE online news, writes in an e-mail, acknowledging that teletext is “ugly” in comparison to even the most basic websites. “The concept and layout are just the same as they were in the 1980’s . Stories are short, only four paragraphs.” And yet, he writes, teletext remains Finland’s most popular news medium—not because it’s pretty, but because it works: “Because in Teletext, content is all that counts.”
Of course, it was only a matter of time before someone made a teletext app for the smartphone. As incongruous as it seems to have 1970s-era technology displayed on a device as fast, sleek, and powerful as an iPhone or a Droid, teletext apps are actually incredibly popular throughout Scandinavia. The public broadcasters don’t produce their own apps, but they release the teletext content as a free datastream, so commercial services like oxorr and others have developed and sold mobile versions.
According to Larsson, SVT’s televised teletext audience had actually been declining slightly for the past several years, but then saw a sharp uptick in 2011. She attributes that, in part, to a new subset of readers who first got in the habit of checking teletext on their smartphones and then started watching it on their TV sets once they got home.
SVT in Sweden recently used its teletext system to marry a very old bit of technology with another very new one: Twitter. A developer created a program that automatically uploaded the tweets of certain Twitter users to the teletext system, and the Tweets then appeared as subtitles on the television. SVT used this method during a big European Idol-esque contest show. It got a mixed reaction. “Parts of the Swedish Twitter-elite didn’t appreciate the project—they argued that this robbed Twitter of its social aspects,” writes Hanna Larsson, head of online news at SVT in an email. “Others thought it enhanced the TV broadcast in a nice way.”
Larsson’s evaluation of the experiment contains a significant point: at the moment, a relatively small number of Scandinavians have signed up for Twitter. Throughout Scandinavia, the percentage of people who have signed up for Facebook is relatively high, but Twitter has not caught on nearly as quickly. For instance, according to Swedish news siteThe Local, about 43 percent of Swedes have Facebook accounts, while only 2 percent are on Twitter.