Internet TV is the new thing. Except that it’s really old.
Before Apple TV, Google Chromecast, the Amazon Fire TV, and Netflix—even before the mid-’90s glory of Microsoft’s WebTV—televisions were plugging into data networks, providing a means instantly grabbing digital goodies and communicating with people in distant places. Witness the video above, a news special from around 1979 or 1980 that explores the “Telefuture.”
Unearthed by video archivist Lauren Weinstein, the special begins with a look at new-fangled contraptions like the VCR, Laserdisc player, and Atari game console. But then it dives into information services like Ceefax and Viewtex. These services didn’t yet provide access to the internet—the open worldwide network we know so well today—but they did let people grab stuff like stock prices and weather updates. And they let people communicate with each other, providing an early taste of what the real internet would be like.
Ceefax was an over-the-air service offered by the BBC that delivered information and games to television sets, thanks to a special receiver could decode the signals and display the text on screen. A television station in Salt Lake City, Utah experimented with the same technology in 1978, as did a few stations in other cities over the years. The idea never took off in the U.S., but stuck around in the UK until 2012, when analog broadcasts were fully replaced with digital.
Viewtex, on the other hand, was a system that used phone lines to connect televisions with interactive services through either special set-top boxes or, eventually, desktop PCs. The most famous incarnation was Minitel, a service that was available throughout France until 2012, providing a wide range of information, plus e-mail, e-commerce and even cybersex. In the U.S., Viewtex services were largely overshadowed by similar, phone line-based such as CompuServe and The Source, a precursor to America Online, both of which launched in 1979.
Yes, it was computers, not television, that ultimately ushered in the networked age. But these services had the right idea—towards the end of the video, an RCA executive named Andrew Gasper says things like CeeFax may one day threaten the newspaper industry—and now the internet is coming back to television. In much bigger ways.