The Toddlers' Truce: Why You Couldn't Watch British TV at 6pm Until 1957

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Turn on the TV at 6:00 this evening and you’ll find the local news, SportsCenter, or perhaps an old Seinfeld rerun. But until this day in 1957, British TVs at 6:00pm wouldn’t show a thing. Thanks to a post-war BBC policy known as the “toddlers' truce,” stations would not broadcast between 6:00 and 7:00 in the evening to give parents a chance to put their children to sleep before the evening programming. The thinking went that if the television programs stopped, it would provide a nice end to the children's day and give parents time to get them to bed before the evening's shows began.

The policy didn't raise much of a reaction among audiences, although some in the government thought it reeked of a nanny state. However, the 1955 launch of the advertising-based ITV (in contrast to the BBC’s public broadcasting model) threw a wrench into the works. ITV felt that going dark for an entire hour, especially the one preceding primetime programming, meant the loss of an hour's worth of ad revenue, giving the BBC an unfair financial advantage.

ITV companies protested and fought for government intervention to lift the “toddlers' truce.” Finally, in late 1956, the stations and government struck a deal to allow programming in that hour, shepherded by Postmaster General Charles Hill, who felt the original policy was paternalistic to begin with.

The first 6:00 shows started on Feb. 16, 1957, and stations reported almost no problems. A BBC spokesman told newspaper reporters that the network had received just six phone calls complaining about the change.

“We regard that as a negligible public protest,” the spokesman added.

Rock 'n' Roll, Calypso and Church Hymns

The BBC actually went about as far away from silence as it could get in its first 6:00 program, airing a rock 'n' roll jukebox show called The Six-Five Special. The show – which started at 6:05 on Saturdays, hence the name – featured hosts Josephine Douglas and Pete Murray, with house band Don Lang and the Frantic Five, plus guests ranging from Petula Clark to boxer Freddie Mills.

Throughout the week, the BBC tried to attract a mix of young and old viewers with a new news show called Tonight. Producers tried to nix the BBC's traditionally stern tone and make Tonight more informal and loose, allowing viewers to tune in and out during an hour when they would usually be doing chores or moving around the house. The show contained everything from interviews to news reports to a regular segment where entertainer Cy Grant sang news-based calypso tunes (check out a clip of one of his "topical calypsos" here, followed by a report about dinosaurs).

Tonight was only slated to run for a few months, but ended up being so successful (audiences averaged around 7 million people a night) that producers left it on the air for eight years.

A sticking point, however, remained with the 6-7 hour on Sunday, when evening church services were held. The BBC elected to keep the hour empty for a while, then later relented and allowed 15 minutes of programming (the remaining 45 minutes stayed dark). Finally, in 1961, the BBC found an acceptable program to fill the full hour: Songs of Praise, a show based around Christian hymns.

Image by flickr user smays.

February 16, 2012 - 9:15am
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