BBC Micros at the BBC

Just how do the reporters bring their news stories into your home.

Volume 5

Number 3

May 1987

On-the-spot coverage

Martin Cooper finds micros hard at work at the BBC

PORTABLE micros seem to be quite the thing these days, especially now that Sir Clive has entered the field with his battery-powered Z88.

In journalistic circles, lapheld LCD screen machines are becoming commonplace. Pressrooms used to echo with the voices of reporters yelling down the phone. Now they are filled with the tack-a-tack of keyboards as correspondents bash out their copy on Tandys.

Rather surprising then, that the BBC Micro is also an increasingly common sight complete with full-sized monitor, disc drives, modem and a tangle of wires.

The journalist at the keyboard is likely to be a sub-editor from Ceefax.

BBC Micros are the key to the on-the-spot coverage that Ceefax is providing from more and more events. They have been used to report on the British Open from Turnberry in Scotland, on the RAC Rally from Bath and on the Embassy World Snooker Championships from the Crucible in Sheffield.

At the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh and at Wimbledon three or four BBC Micros were in constant use.

The journalists covering these events are not just sending material back to the newsroom. They are using the micros as editing terminals linked to the main Ceefax computer at Television Centre in London and broadcasting pages "live" to 14 million viewers all over the country.

Duty editor Graham Norwood recently returned from Dublin, where he was covering that well-known sporting event, the Irish general election.

"There's no doubt that we're the envy of other journalists on these occasions", he says. "We can broadcast our pages so easily without masses of equipment and large camera crews, or interminable phone calls back to the office . . ."

Mode 7 is what makes all this possible. When Acorn's Proton was transmuted into the Models A and B, the BBC specified that a teletext display option should be built in.

This was done with an eye to future developments in telesoftware, but it was not long before someone realised that the micros could be used to create as well as receive teletext pages.

At the time, state-of-the-art editing terminals were bulky and expensive. In most cases they consisted of a purpose-built keyboard and a cabinet full of printed circuit boards. They were troublesome to transport and set up and cost so much that sending two terminals to an outside event (one as backup) seriously reduced the equipment available in the main newsroom.

The BBC Micro, on the other hand, was comparatively cheap, easily ferried around in the boot of a car and capable of reproducing all the requirements of broadcast teletext - including a couple of control characters not documented in the User Guide.

Codes 138 and 139, listed as "nothing", actually punch "boxes" in the TV picture to allow subtitles to show through not a lot of use to most micro users.

A BBC engineer wrote a rom-based terminal package which he called MicroFax. From then on, with a small pool of BBC Bs, Ceefax was on the road.

Communication between a BBC Micro and the main Ceefax computer (a DEC PDP11) is via the RS423 port, at 9600 baud if the micro is in the newsroom -where a modem is not needed - otherwise at 1200 baud.

Ceefax, like the rest of the BBC, uses specially-leased four-wire British Telecom circuits to carry data around the country, rather than the public telephone network. These have the advantages of being noise-free and off limits to the general public, well-meaning or otherwise.

For added security, a system of passwords defines exactly which areas of the output each micro can access.

Working offline with MicroFax, a subeditor can store up to 20 pages in memory and save the whole 20k "magazine" on disc. Pages can be edited or erased, merged or dumped to a printer. Online, pages stored in memory or on disc can be uploaded in bulk to Ceefax, and as many of the main system's facilities can be used as password privileges allow.

MicroFax is modelled on the Aston terminals that make up most of the newsroom's equipment. The 24 lines of the page being edited fill most of the display, but a one-line window at the bottom of the screen allows commands to be sent either to the micro or to the Ceefax computer.

Text is entered in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has used a word processor-except, of course, that there is no scrolling.

The operator can insert and delete, or move lines up and down the screen, but the size of the page is so limited - about 80 words - that elaborate text-handling facilities are not really needed.

Graphics are more complicated. Dabblers in Mode 7 will know that each of the chunky teletext graphic characters corresponds to a letter on the keyboard.

The factor which decides whether an alphanumeric (letter) or graphic character will be displayed is the control code preceding it. On a teletext page these appear as blank spaces, but they are entered from the keyboard just like any other characters.

Using MicroFax, the function keys in conjunction with Shift and Control supply alphanumeric or graphic colour codes, other codes, like flash and double height, are obtained with combinations of Control and ? letter keys.

With control codes in place, MicroFax allows six keys (QWASZX) to be used as a "graphics patch". Each switches on or off one of six segments to define the Mode 7 graphics character required.

"Outside broadcasts" were not the only innovation made possible by the BBC Micro. There are several BBC Bs in the Ceefax newsroom, where they serve as extra terminals, but other BBC departments also have their own machines which they use to contribute pages. Some send discs to be checked and uploaded by Ceefax sub-editors, others go online to the main computer.

"It saves us a lot of routine inputting", says Graham Norwood. "The BBC stand at the Ideal Home Exhibition might have its own micro and modem, for example.

"We would give them a password which allowed access to just one page, and they could update details of the exhibition for themselves. Otherwise the information would probably come to us on paper and someone here would have to type it in".

Several specialist pages are produced either by Ceefax staff or by outside contributors working at home on their own micros. The pop music page Ceetrax and the weekly computer "column" Next both arrive on disc every week as MicroFax files.

Next regularly includes items written on other micros, most commonly Spec-trums and Commodores. These are sent to the editor via Prestel mailbox, and since Prestel shares the teletext format they can be downloaded straight into a BBC Micro to have colour and graphics added before being broadcast.

With so many micros around the Ceefax newsroom, it was inevitable that someone would start programming on them.

Pages containing football fixture lists and league tables are compiled and broadcast automatically every Saturday during the season. The software, written in Basic by one of the sub-editors, calls results pages from the main computer, reads the scores from them and updates the league tables accordingly.

The whole job, which used to require half an hour of painstaking checking, is finished in a couple of minutes.

Not all programming efforts are this successful, however. During the last local elections one of the team came up with a short machine code routine to count the gains and losses suffered by each party.

The program was supposed to call up each of the results pages in turn and check for changes. Halfway through the night it announced its political inclinations by refusing to acknowledge any more Conservative gains. The count was continued manually.

Ceefax Editor Graham Clayton has a BBC Micro running in his office, though it is not linked to the main computer. He uses a teletext adapter to keep an eye on the output from the viewers' end. The adapter detects any updates on the channel it is tuned to and captures the new pages for him to check through.

"With about 300 pages on BBC1 alone it would take me a couple of hours to read them all", he explains, "and by that time most of them would have been updated again anyway. This is really the only way I can keep track of all the changes".

Another piece of software he uses with the adapter can carry out a keyword search of all the pages being broadcast on the selected channel. The search takes a single cycle of the Ceefax magazine - currently about 15 seconds - and pages containing the keyword are stored for immediate display.

It is not foolproof, however. A page on the latest Test match will have a large graphics heading saying "Cricket", which will go undetected. The text itself may well not contain the keyword.

One of the most successful examples of an Acorn machine handling Ceefax pages cannot be seen in this country.

In March this year a new service was launched on the French videotex system Teletel. It consists entirely of pages taken from Ceefax, updated several times a day.

Teletel is page-based like Prestel and Ceefax, but inevitably the two standards are incompatible. Nevertheless, the transmission of pages is fully automated and handled from beginning to end by a Master 128.

The software for selecting pages and translating them into the French standard was written by Graham Bartram, already well-known in teletext circles as author of the ATS rom. At set intervals during the day the Master logs on to the main Ceefax computer and calls up a selection of pages, saving them on disc. On each one English trail lines referring to Ceefax page numbers are replaced by French prompts.

Periodically there is a call from France, received via an "intelligent" auto-answer modem, and the Master reads each of its stored pages over to a Paris-based PC, translating the characters into their Teletel equivalents as it does so. It also sends instructions with each page telling the French host computer where it should be stored in the Teletel database.

The process is entirely transparent as far as the rest of Ceefax is concerned. The main computer regards the Master simply as a terminal, displaying pages like any other.

The BBC Micro has two disadvantages when compared with purpose-built teletext editing terminals. The keyboard is rather restricted, especially when it comes to graphics, and it is unable to display the control characters which produce text colours and other effects.

The second of these two problems is probably insurmountable (though we have all heard that one before). Most purpose-built teletext terminals can toggle on and off a set of symbols indicating the position of control characters.

It is difficult to see how this could be done on a micro, short of some Elite-style juggling of modes which would greatly reduce the memory available for offline page storage.

The keyboard problem is more easily dealt with. Ceefax and Softel, a company specialising in teletext equipment, have been experimenting with new casings for the BBC Micro.

The main board and two disc drives are housed in a single console, PC-style, while a remote keyboard has been laid out with MicroFax in mind.

The 10 function keys have been replaced by a row of 23 covering all the control codes. The "graphics patch", meanwhile, has been given its own block of keys, rather like the Master's numeric keypad.

The design is still undergoing trials, but it is possible that before long the BBC Micro minus the familiar beige box - may become standard equipment in teletext newsrooms.