News that RTÉ will officially close its Aertel teletext service next week will prompt a range of emotions.
For some, the announcement brings back fond memories of Aertel’s heyday in the years immediately prior to the internet. Others may be surprised it hadn’t been terminated years ago (the BBC shut down its own equivalent, Ceefax, in 2012). Anyone under the age of 30 will probably wonder what everyone else is going on about.
When Aertel launched in 1987, it was Ireland’s first experience of non-linear television, not that anyone called it that at the time. We can now clearly see it as the original ancestor from which all RTÉ's contemporary digital output – websites, apps, players – have sprung.
But it is also a forebear of the website or app on which you may be reading this article. Alongside another eighties invention, the domestic VCR, Aertel was a harbinger of a future in which audiences would no longer be shackled to the schedules of programmers or publishers.
In the late 1980s, evening newspapers still printed Final Score editions on a Saturday. There was no way to find out what was on the telly without checking a printed page. Mobile phones were the size of microwave ovens, and there were only a few hundred of them in the country. Rolling 24-hour news channels were a distant rumour from far-off America, while Irish television switched off at midnight and didn’t come back on until late the next morning.
Aertel brought a little bit of Day-Glo digital immediacy into this drab, analogue world. In its mid-1990s pomp, the service was a hugely popular resource for finding everything from breaking news reports to sports results and entertainment listings. And its closed caption function was a boon for anyone with hearing difficulties.
Viewers learned where to find their favourite pages: 103 for news, 161 for weather, 300 for entertainment. Headlines were short and functional (they all had to be exactly 33 characters long). Articles were similarly brisk, but they told you what you needed to know: good training for a generation of journalists who would move on later to other things.
This was the point at which, for the first time in their history, broadcasters dipped their toes into the written word; a few years later newspapers would return the favour by getting into podcasts and video. With the distinctions getting increasingly blurry everything would ultimately become plain “media” or “content”.
Aertel had its own particular niches. Travel deals were highly popular; you could spend hours staring at the screen, pen and paper in hand, waiting for that prized last-minute half-price JWT package to Lanzarote to come around again on the 30-page carousel. In this as so much else – election results, live sports scores, flight arrival times – it was the internet for the pre-internet generation.
Unsurprisingly, nostalgia was rife on social media as news emerged of Aertel’s demise. As with any cultural artefact from a particular period, memories were warmest among those who entered into early adulthood during the service’s golden years. Inevitably, some lamented the passing of a simpler, more straightforward service and its displacement by the bewildering, chaotic, often nasty, digital jungle we have today.
Nostalgia only goes so far, though. Aertel’s 1980s pixelated aesthetic may be quite fashionable right now (a missed merch opportunity for RTÉ's ill-starred commercial enterprises division).
But like the telegraph and the telegram (which, astonishingly survived in Ireland until 2002) before it, teletext’s race is run. The big question may be whether television itself is far behind.