The BBC test card and in-vision teletext

TV Presentation has a cousin – trade test transmissions and in-vision teletext pages.

If you grew up in the 70s or 80s and took an interest in what went on between programmes, you may well also have noticed what went on during the massive gaps in the BBC’s daytime schedules – especially if you were an only child stuck indoors during a holiday downpour or off school unwell.

It’s often stated that Pages from Ceefax replaced the test card in May 1983. But was it really quite that simple?  A new discovery on YouTube is intriguing.

Ceefax had been popping up regularly from early 1980 – often, but not always, during the half hour before trade test transmissions began. But gradually it seemed to be getting used to fill more of the gaps – particularly following the Falklands War.

Regular daytime screenings of the test card on BBC One were massively curtailed in January 1983. At the same time as Breakfast Time began, gaps in the afternoon schedule were filled. A few weeks later Ceefax AM – actually billed in Radio Times and promoted on air – appeared before Breakfast Time.

Certainly by May, Ceefax was routinely filling the gaps on BBC One and BBC Two previously filled by the test card but all but the most diehard fans of trade test transmissions may not have realised there had actually been a shift in BBC protocol.  The Radio Times still billed the gaps as “Closedown” while BBC Two still went completely off the air on days when there was nothing between Play School and early evening programmes as a video from 3rd June 1983 proves.

VIDEO: the end of an edition of Play School and a BBC Two junction into Pages from Ceefax. TX DATE/TIME: 3rd June 1983, 10.55am. SUPPLIED BY: YouTube Channel – Neil Miles. COPYRIGHT: BBC.

In many regions, Test Card G would still appear on BBC Two in the late-afternoon – again disguising the policy change – while right up until the late-80s, Test Card F would still pop up from time-to-time during the day if Ceefax could not be shown, perhaps because of computer problems.  So it would be easy for a Pres fan tuning in out of boredom on a wet day during the school holidays of 1983 not to realise that regular daytime screenings of Test Card F were over.

The next significant change happened in September. The move of schools programmes to BBC Two meant the end of daytime transmitter shutdowns – a policy initially introduced in 1975 during a BBC cash crisis. After the end of the first term of Daytime on 2, these shutdowns – which were a huge pain to TV installers – were no more and Ceefax filled the entire day on BBC Two in the run-up to the Christmas holidays.

Then in January 1984, proof the changes were now official – Radio Times started billing Pages from Ceefax rather than daytime closedowns.  The change itself was a no brainer. Teletext was being heavily promoted and in-vision screenings were also useful to viewers, especially the deaf and hard of hearing.

As televisions became more reliable, the need for a test card to be broadcast declined. But it would be interesting to know how much thought went into this change at the time and how high up the decision was taken. One would assume senior BBC management had much more important things to worry about but what about the engineering department? Presumably they were not so keen as some would still find the test card helpful?

Or did it all simply happen by stealth, possibly on the initiative of someone in Presentation? Perhaps that someone was aware that Ceefax could be useful during a Radio Times strike around Easter 1983 and the election campaign shortly afterwards.

Incidentally those whose interest was principally in the music played with the test card would argue that some of the music played with Ceefax after 1983 was less enjoyable. But again – was there a conscious policy shift? Or was it by stealth?




Posted by Andrew Nairn

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