The Toddler Truce

If you’re a parent of a young child, there’s a good chance that your night is defined by the bedtime routine. Your job: get the kids to take a bath, put on pajamas, brush their teeth, and ultimately, go to sleep. Their job: to get you to give them one more snack, read them one more book, turn on the nightlight, turn off the nightlight, read them a different book even though you’re already halfway through that first book, get them a cup of water, clean up the cup of water they just spilled all over the place, and, just when you think they’re out of ways to delay going to sleep, to tell you that they forgot to actually brush their teeth.

Bedtime: it’s a battle.

And if you were in the UK from 1946 until 1957, you — the parent — had an ally: the BBC.

On September 1, 1939 — two days before the UK declared war on Germany — the BBC stopped broadcasting. Authorities at the time believed that the Germans could pick up on the TV signals, which could provide an intelligence advantage, and while that was likely not a reason for actual concern, it didn’t matter. The BBC — the only television broadcaster in the UK at the time — ceased all programming for the duration of the war.

The BBC resumed broadcasting on June 7, 1946, and when it came back, most of the day was dedicated to children’s programming. As Money Week explains, “in those days, the BBC, which was the only broadcaster, prided itself on its social responsibilities. The programs it produced for children were designed to aid a child’s development within the harmonious environment of the family home.” Parents were busy with work and home life; afterschool programming, if designed to be educational, could be a boon. But when bedtime came, the tables were turned. Kids wouldn’t want to go to bed in the first place, and having endless television programming would only make it harder for parents to get them to start that end-of-day routine. 

The easy solution was to simply change the type of shows: end the cartoons at 6 PM and start news programming immediately thereafter. But in theory, that was somewhat risky. Some kids would keep watching, getting exposed to content that wasn’t necessarily appropriate for them. And those who had to go to bed could claim to be interested in this not-for-them TV, despite that being nothing more than an empty delay tactic. So the government adopted a different solution: it required the BBC to show nothing at all. From 6 PM to 7 PM, if you turned on your TV, there’d be nothing to watch but a test screen colloquially called “the toddler truce.” Across the country, authorities believed, parents would snap into action, starting on that bedtime battle. 

And no one really seemed to mind. Consumers didn’t have the need for always-on programming, and the BBC wasn’t broadcasting overnight anyway, so a gap at 6 wasn’t out of place. (Besides, the population had just gone nearly seven years without any TV broadcasting.) The BBC didn’t mind either — producing content is expensive, the BBC’s revenue comes from TV licenses (not ads, and therefore, not impacted by an hour of dead air) and as the New York Daily Mirror noted, this was one fewer hour they had to fill. 

But in the mid-1950s, when the UK allowed for other broadcasters, the toddler truce became an issue. In 1955, a new broadcaster named ITV debuted, and it made its money off of advertising. Not having a show on at 6 PM meant no viewers and therefore, no advertisers. ITV petitioned the government to end the toddler truce. On February 16, 1957, the toddler truce came to an end. The toddlers had won.

The good news: parents didn’t seem to care. As Mental Floss reported, “stations reported almost no problems. A BBC spokesman told newspaper reporters that the network had received just six phone calls complaining about the change.”

Bonus fact: The last program the BBC showed before World War II was a 7-minute Mickey Mouse cartoon called “Mickey’s Gala Premier.” (There’s no “e” at the end of “Premier,” which is likely an early typographical error.) The first program when broadcasting resumed? Mickey’s Gala Premier.

From the Archives: The Day There Was No News: BBC Radio takes the day off.