Let them read text

In a country known for 100-megabit home internet and one of the highest smartphone usage rates in the world, there lurks an archaic and surprisingly popular mass-media technology. Text-TV, the Swedish national TV network’s teletext system, boasts 3.7 million weekly viewers. In other words, more than one third of the population of Sweden regularly sits down at their TVs to read news headlines and sports scores in dazzling 6-color monospaced type.

To my dear American readers, teletext technology may be an alien concept (it certainly was to me before being introduced to Text-TV). It is essentially an analog broadcasting hack, where text data is encoded between video frames of a TV signal. It can be used for subtitles and program information, or the TV can be switched to a pure-text mode for viewing different numbered “pages” of text. A viewer navigates to a page by using the remote to enter the page’s corresponding number; a primitive hyperlink.

The image above is the current front page of TV4 Text. Note the numbered links for different news articles and sections. Quick Swedish lesson tangent: Avförings means “fecal.”

The BBC pioneered teletext technology in the early 70’s, and Sweden was the next country to follow a few years later. Many networks around the world adopted teletext systems since then, but in the past decade some have shut down because of the transition to digital broadcasting and the ubiquity of the internet.

But not in Sweden. SVT, the Swedish national TV network, has admirably kept Text-TV relevant in today’s ever-changing media landscape. They adapted the text encoding for digital broadcasting, so it is available as a part of current cable and over-the-air service. But more impressively, they offer a Text-TV website which faithfully recreates the familiar page layout and navigation, including the option of a white-on-black “TV” color scheme.

Discovering this new old technology was a revelation for me, but I was skeptical as to how much it is really used among my own “Twitter this, Facebook that” generation. So I asked a Swedish friend whether young people actually watch the Text-TV. His response was, “It’s mostly older people who grew up with it their whole lives, but the app is pretty good for sports.”

The app?

Yes, that’s right. A 40-year-old system for displaying text on a television has been ported to iPhone and Android, along with the same vintage fonts and colors.

TextTV Android app screenshot

Apparently the 3rd-party iPhone version was one of the most popular apps in Sweden when it was released. According to an editorial director at SVT, “Text-TV has a minimalist style, straightforward language, and an interface with no pictures or anything to overload a mobile. I also think that Text-TV has become a little like a cult, there is some kind of nostalgia for many.”

May Text-TV live to see another 40 years.