‘Effectively a tool of Satan’: how the UK authorities were utterly terrified by TV

<span>Photograph: Allan Cash Picture Library/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Allan Cash Picture Library/Alamy

Forty years ago, the battle of early morning broadcasting came to a head. ITV lost, debuting its first ever breakfast show, Good Morning Britain, on 1 February 1983 – a full 14 days after the launch of the BBC’s Breakfast Time. But this was just a mere skirmish in a much bigger war – one that stretched from the 1950s until almost the 21st century. The battleground? How much TV should be allowed in Britain.

The conflict was fought between broadcasters, who wanted to make maximum use of a new medium, and politicians and moralists who feared that more TV would zombify the population and leave workplaces and schools empty as people stayed at home to slump in front of sets. For many decades, religious leaders argued that the box was effectively a tool of Satan.

Today it is shocking to see how restricted TV used to be. When ITV and BBC One launched their two cereal services, it marked the first time that weekday broadcasting started before 9.30am – extending UK broadcasting by a combined five-and-three-quarter hours every morning. But once Good Morning Britain signed off at 9.15am, it was followed by a 15-minute slot of dead air, before school programming began at 9.30am. BBC One also had a 10-minute interval, plus a 20-minute closedown at 12.10pm before the lunchtime news. BBC Two didn’t start until 10.10am, and had two daily closedown periods, from 11.55am to 2.15pm and 3.30pm to 4.35pm. Channel 4, launched in 1982, couldn’t start broadcasting until 4.45pm.

This on-off programming was partly due to daytime broadcasting being almost exclusively for schools – older Britons will remember TV sets being wheeled into the classroom – or preschoolers at home. The intervals or closedowns were a buffer zone to avoid young eyes accidentally catching grownup shows.

But another explanation was a residual terror of television at the heart of British politics and in the BBC board of governors. In 1979, when Michael Parkinson attempted to extend his Saturday night talkshow to four weeknights – as had been standard on US networks for decades – the governors blocked the move, encouraged by politicians. The Tory MP for Carshalton, Nigel Forman, complained to the Labour home secretary that the BBC was “departing from its Reithian purpose and becoming little more than a benefit match for Michael Parkinson”.

Parkinson left to join TV-am, ITV’s breakfast franchise, leading parliament to fret about his stretching of the schedules at the other end. In July 1981, a Home Office minister reported that multiple MPs had tried to block breakfast TV.

This double pushback against Parky arose from fears that breakfast news and late-night talkshows might dilute serious journalism, but also that there were risks to society and the economy if people stayed up too late, or sat on their sofas watching Selina Scott or Parky instead of getting ready for work or school.

These attitudes can only be understood by realising how deep the notion of programme-rationing was built into British TV. From its creation in 1927, the BBC transmitted within strict time limits, dictated partly by the early cost of broadcasting but also a fear that radio (and, from 1936, television) might radicalise or tranquillise the nation.

The launch in 1955 of ITV – doubling the available channels and introducing commercially funded shows – was a moment of moral panic. On 22 March 1955, the minister in the Churchill government with responsibility for television, Herbrand Sackville, 9th Earl De La Warr, set up a system where TV was to broadcast for a maximum of 35 hours a week, between 9am and 11pm. No shows were allowed between 6pm and 7pm, and only two hours of TV were permitted before 1pm. There was an eight-hour limit to how much television could be shown each day, except for Sunday – when only 7hr 45min were to be broadcast.

The Sunday rules showed another huge influence on early UK viewing: religion. De La Warr explained that his scheduling was guided by “the view of the churches that television programmes should as far as possible avoid the time of Sunday evening services”. Hence broadcasting stopped between 6.15pm and 7.30pm, and no children’s programmes could be shown “between 2pm and 4pm – the normal Sunday school period”.

By 1956, ITV, struggling to find airtime for the rush of advertising, was chafing at the restrictions, and found sympathy from De La Warr’s successor, Dr Charles Hill, MP for Luton, who moonlighted as “the radio doctor”, urging BBC listeners to regulate their bowels by consuming prunes. He allowed the BBC and ITV to broadcast “during the periods they think best to meet the needs of their audiences” – up to 50 hours a week. However, to appease the archbishop of Canterbury, the Sunday regulations remained.

But in the late 50s, canny schedulers began looking at a footnote in the 1955 legislation: “Religious services may be broadcast outside the permitted hours and in addition to the daily maximum.” Lawyers confirmed that if “closed periods” were given over to God, there could be no objection. From the 60s, the BBC’s Songs of Praise and ITV’s Stars on Sunday, effectively hymn concerts, launched what became known as “the God slot”.

Throughout the 60s, suggestions that more broadcasting might improve society were increasingly heard. In 1968, Albert Murray, the Labour MP for Gravesend, urged fellow members: “During winter months, old-age pensioners are unable to leave home as often as they would like to and would welcome further broadcasting.”

But the view of TV as devilish still had many followers. “Is it not quite clear that we are already getting enough rubbish on television without extending the time during which this rubbish is unloaded on a long-suffering public?” asked the Labour MP for Brixton in December 1967.

However, in July the next year, there was an announcement by Labour’s postmaster general – John Stonehouse, who later faked his death during a crisis of adultery and bankruptcy, and was recently played on ITV by Matthew Macfadyen. “For BBC One and independent television, I have authorised an extra three-and-a-half hours a week, and an extra 50 hours a year for outside broadcasts.” BBC Two got two more hours and 50 of outside broadcasts (showing the rise of televised sport).

The increase in broadcasting time led to a difficulty, however: the “seesaw problem”. ITV wanted long schedules to sell more ads, but as the BBC also received any extension, a rise in the licence fee was then required. In the 70s, the Commons heard for the first time the nascent Tory libertarian voice on broadcasting (to reach an apotheosis in 2021-22 under the culture secretary Nadine Dorries), favouring a deregulated free-for-all. Yorkshire Tory Wilf Proudfoot described TV restrictions as “a stupid piece of nonsense designed to protect the BBC monopoly”. Proudfoot was an eccentric, who had once run a pirate radio station off the Scarborough coast and eventually left politics to become a hypnotist in the US. His views were countered by parliament’s more traditional TV-fearers – “What this country suffers from is not a lack but a surfeit of television,” argued the Tory MP for Stratford-on-Avon – and grassroots activists such as the predominantly Christian Festival of Light and conservative activist Mary Whitehouse. Nevertheless, the watch-till-you-drop lobby won.

In 1972, the cabinet member Christopher Chataway, a former ITN newscaster who had been a pacesetter for Roger Bannister’s first sub-four-minute mile, announced that the Edward Heath government had “decided to end the restrictions on hours of television broadcasting”.

From October 1972, ITV ran unbroken schedules from 9.30am (though the early slots were still taken up with school programming) until the first hour of the next day. The BBC mainly retained its interrupted days and short nights, but, after it joined ITV for breakfast 40 years ago, boundaries progressively dissolved.

BBC Daytime began in 1986, as video recorders and then computers removed the need for educational-programme slots. The next year, ITV launched a full 24-hour service for viewers in London, with other regions soon following. BBC One went 24/7 (using the BBC News channel as filler) from 1997. Soon, the techniques that networks once used to punctuate their schedules – test cards, closedowns, vanishing dots, the national anthem, the teletext news service Ceefax – survived only as details in period dramas.

TV-am and Breakfast News began this defeat of the television prohibitionists. According to nutritionists, a big breakfast helps to fill you up for the rest of the day. In television, it enabled broadcasters to keep filling up until midnight and beyond.