Seen a movie or TV show in the last 25 years? If so, you probably noticed that on screen, 99% of phone numbers start with “555.” Is this a law of some kind, or just a case of Hollywood not wanting to accidentally use a real phone number? Here’s the deal…
The 555 phenomenon is well documented on the Web. And the expert researchers at The Straight Dope covered this exact topic way back in 1978. According to TSD, the “555″ prefix was “created in 1973 — no matter where you are, dialing the 555 number plugs you into directory assistance.” Interesting, and no doubt accurate when it was written, but I suspected phone conventions have changed a bit in the last 30+ years.
TV Acres writes that movies and TV shows use 555 mostly as a favor to the public. The convention “was designed to prevent people from receiving crank calls when a phone was mentioned on a TV show or movie.” Ask Yahoo!, a site I used to write for, explains that the number 555 was likely chosen by the entertainment industry because “in the old exchange-name telephone number system (think Pennsylvania 6-5000), no English place names contained the combination of the letters J, K, and L — all assigned to the digit “5″ on the phone. So, the prefix 555 went largely unused.” A “mind-numbingly comprehensive” site lists just about every movie or TV show to have used a 555 number.
While most movies and TV shows use 555, there are some rebels who don’t. For example, I watched the movie “House of the Devil” (obviously not a romantic-comedy) several weeks ago, and one of the characters mentions a phone number that does not begin with 555. I’d gotten so used to hearing “555-whatever” that I actually did a bit of a double take.
The most famous instance of an artist not using the 555 prefix is, of course, the 1982 song 867-5309 by Tommy Tutone. There are countless stories of people who were unfortunate enough to have that number when the song came out. No doubt that their having to explain that “Jenny doesn’t live here” got old very quickly. I couldn’t find any proof, but I suspect that understandable outrage had a lot to do with movies and TV shows sticking with 555-XXXX.
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