Why is TV still rationed? 

27 January 2016 tbs.pm/8500


Cover of TVTimes

From the TVTimes for 4 December 1965

Shackled by statutory restrictions, Britain’s television watching is strictly rationed – by order.

Mr Aubrey Buxton,[1] a director of Anglia Television, said: “Anglia wants extra hours. ITV badly needs additional hours of broadcasting because present restriction prevent much worthwhile material being screened.

“The ITV companies originate about twice as much material as there are hours during which is can be shown.

“Extra hours will also enable important or successful programmes to be shown at different times so that more viewers would be able to see them.”

These words echo the general feeling among ITV’s companies. Regulations now limit both ITV and BBC to 50 hours a week of “normal” television – the kind of programmes most people watch. This limitation has been unaltered since 1964.

Television is the only medium of mass entertainment and information so severely chained. The ration was basically influenced by the BBC view that it could not afford to transmit more than 50 hours of television – and therefore competition was limited to that.

It’s true that the authorities allow 440 hours of outside broadcasts a year (doubled from 200 hours 10 years ago), and that school, religious and Welsh language programmes aren’t rationed.

In the United States, there is no restriction on television hours. Programmes come on the air at 6am, and by breakfast time they are in full swing.

By noon, on a typical day, the New Yorker has had his choice of no less than 46 different items from the seven channels available to him, ranging from full length films to cookery and adult education.

On an average afternoon, there’s a choice of, say, four full length movies, a puppet show, six news bulletins, a programme on antiques, four children’s features, and a live celebrity show.

At the other end of the scale, after 11 o’clock at night, Americans can take their pick of at least 24 programmes, with the late movie going on the air at 2.55am.

“As far as I know, Britain is the only country that is limited by such restrictions,” said an ITA official. “Some countries abroad have less television than us, of course, but the decision is made by the broadcasters, and not imposed on them by the State.”

Maybe people working ordinary office hours aren’t interested in television in the middle of the afternoon, or at 1am, but would it not be a great boon for shift workers, housewives and invalids?

“As far as I know, Britain is the only country that is limited by such restrictions,” said an ITA official. “Some countries abroad have less television than us, of course, but the decision is made by the broadcasters,[2] and not imposed on them by the State.”

As a point of comparison, there is no law limiting the number of pages a newspaper may print,[3] and there are no statutory restrictions on the hours of sound radio.[4]

People in Buenos Aires have 50 hours of TV a day (over four channels) to choose from – compare that with our weekly ration. Argentine TV goes on during the early hours, and it’s nothing unusual to have an entertaining programme showing at 1am. There are films, newsreels, and other shows very late at night.

In Tokyo, TV comes on the screen at 6am with news and a programme for farmers, and continues broadcasting for the next 18 hours.

At the moment, ITV cannot put on plays and variety shows, entertainment programmes and features, in the afternoon (or the morning), without cutting into the evening ration.


Listings page from the TVTimes

TVTimes listings pages for 6 December 1965. Anglia comes on air at 4.35pm; they’re off-air again by 11.30pm


Postmaster General Anthony Wedgewood Benn,[5] who has to administer restrictions laid down by a previous government, has already come out in support of television for people who work awkward hours.

He said: “Television has a part to play all the 24 hours round, and shift workers surely are entitled to their share of the programmes.”[6]

During a recent interview he told me: “The whole question of television programme hours is now being gone into by a government committee on the future of broadcasting.”

“I think the Postmaster General should allow a relaxation of these restrictions. I think there is a good case for more television, especially during the day.”

And Mr David Gibson-Watt,[7] MP, the Conservative Party’s Deputy Shadow Minister for Broadcasting and Communications, said he too was in favour of more latitude in television hours.

“I think the Postmaster General should allow a relaxation of these restrictions,” he told me. “I think there is a good case for more television, especially during the day.”

Would viewers like to see television on the air for breakfast?[8] Or late at night?[9]

With television time so tightly rationed, as it is in Britain, there isn’t much room for experiments.

If the American, Japanese and Argentinians can do it, why not the British?

According to the history books, rationing ended in Britain in 1953.[10] Is it really necessary to ration television?



  1. Lord Buxton of Alsa, 15 July 1918 – 1 September 2009.
  2. At this time, the Independent Television Authority was legally the broadcaster of ITV programmes, with the companies simply contractors to whom the ITA had devolved some of their work.
  3. There had been during both world wars; also, governments in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries had periodically charged a Stamp Duty and similar taxes on newspapers that had caused them to shrink pagination or close altogether.
  4. At this time. There had been previously.
  5. Tony Benn, 3 April 1925 – 14 March 2014. MP 1950-1960, 1963-1983, 1984-2001. Postmaster General 1964-1966, Minister of Technology 1966-1970, Secretary of State for Industry 1974-1975, Secretary of State for Energy 1975-1979.
  6. Repeats in off-hours for shift workers were not unusual on Eastern European state television. East Germany’s Deutscher Fernsehfunk channel pioneered this with Wir wiederholen für Spätarbeiter, “We repeat for late workers”, starting in 1958.
  7. James David Gibson-Watt, Baron Gibson-Watt MC and Two Bars, 11 September 1918 – 7 February 2002, MP 1956-1974.
  8. The ITV companies were reluctant to provide breakfast television, fearing it would be financial disaster. Eventually the Independent Broadcasting Authority stepped in and appointed a breakfast television franchise. It was a financial disaster.
  9. 24-hour television arrived in the late 1980s on ITV, although ITV companies were pushed into it by a threat from the IBA of them appointing an overnight contractor. The viewers have never materialised.
  10. Actually 4 July 1954, when meat became the last foodstuff to go off the ration, although fruit drinks like Ribena and orange juice remained restricted to children for a while longer and petrol had been rationed during the Suez Crisis of 1956-1957.


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