High-tech war toys storm TV and theater. Critics zap the new `interactive' robots and spaceships
Santa Monica, Calif. — Toy warships activated by inaudible cues. Plastic soldiers operated by flashes of light. Hand-held, toy guns which shoot the bad guys on TV. Faster than a laser blast, battle lines have been drawn over the new generation of children's toys activated by clandestine signals - high-pitched tones, beams of photons - emanating from a normal TV set. Prototypes were unveiled last week at the American International Toy Fair in New York City, and burned last weekend by protesters here. Parent, professional, consumer, and peace groups are zapping back at toy manufacturers and sellers, as well as at broadcasters and lawmakers, charging that the new toys not only induce kids to violence but use the public airwaves to do it. All to sell more toys.
Consumer groups add that the toys - some costing $250 - are economically discriminatory. Parent groups say the toys stifle imagination, dulling the mind.
``So far there's only four of these `interactive' toy/cartoon shows scheduled,'' says Peggy Charren of Action for Children's Television, the Massachusetts-based organization formed to encourage diversity in children's programming. ``But if they're successful, we'll see 44 more the next time around and more after that.
``We are asking the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] to issue a declaratory ruling holding that the broadcast of children's TV shows which are program-length commercials, including both current and proposed programming, violates the public interest,'' says Ms. Charren.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also announced opposition to the interactive toys last week. ``This new toy technology ... makes it clear that the FCC is content to let toy companies use airwaves as a billboard for selling products to children,'' said William H. Dietz, chairman of the group's committee on children and television.
The National Coalition on Television Violence is employing a more direct form of protest. It was one of NCTV's affiliates, the Southern California-based Alliance for Survival, that sponsored last Saturday's ``meltdown'' of war toys in Santa Monica, Calif. The toys, wrapped in aluminum foil before being placed in a fire, are destined for NCTV headquarters in Champaign, Ill., where they will be made into a statue for peace.
``I'm very concerned that there continues to be a proliferation of toys that emphasize combativeness as a way to solve problems,'' said Marianne Powell, a Venice, Calif., resident who showed up at the meltdown with her father and two young daughters. ``We're gathered here to say, `no more, we're going to stop it.'''
Actress Drew Barrymore, Santa Monica, Calif., Mayor James Conn, and singer Michelle Phillips addressed the the crowd, testifying to the bad effects of condoning war play. Vietnam Veteran Ron Kovic told gatherers, ``I'm here in this wheel chair because I held a toy gun as a kid and followed the example into battle. Nobody told me it wasn't right. We've got to set an example for children by letting them know they should play with toys of peace, not war.''
``The Surgeon General has a very clear report documenting violent programming for kids as a serious public health problem,'' says Samuel A. Simon, a lawyer for NCTV. The coalition argues that the ``interactive'' toys reopen the issue of commercial free speech. Such speech, if proven harmful, does not receive the same First Amendment protection of other forms of expression - as in the case of televised cigarette commercials, banned since 1972.
``It is certain and unequivocal that Congress can ban, restrict, or allow for counter-advertising against these products if it wants to,'' says Mr. Simon.
NCTV is working with sympathetic members of Congress to propose legislation that would prohibit the use of children's programming by toy companies as a way of selling toys with violent themes.
The FCC, according to spokesman Bill Johnson, allowed two of the companies now manufacturing the toys, Mattel and Axlon, to proceed with their toys and programming because ``we couldn't find any reason why it was illegal.''
He says the issue of clandestine signals arose once before in 1970. Because it impaired the TV picture, the FCC prohibited NBC from emitting a blank dot on the screen to let affiliate stations know a commercial was imminent. ``But these new broadcasts don't in any way degrade the picture or its quality, so we let them do it,'' he says. He adds that the FCC refused to approve programming for one interactive toy because it used a series of dots on the screen that would interrupt the viewing of those with no toy counterparts. Manufacturers intended the toy to be run by a cord and suction cup that stuck to the screen and received digital information.
Nolan Bushnell, president of Axlon, manufacturer of TechForce - one of the more advanced interactive toys - says the related TV programs scheduled to air in September will be entertaining even for viewers who don't have the toys. ``It would be a travesty,'' he says, to have the ability to create such toys and not use it. Other manufacturers say they expect the new, high-tech toys to bolster an industry whose profits were flat last year.
Still, sales of war toys, according to Toy and Hobby World magazine, have soared by 700 percent since 1982 to $1.2 billion. Over the same period, the number of war cartoons in national distribution has increased from one and a half hours to 43, according to NCTV.
``Four of the top five and seven of the top ten toys in the US are violent toy lines, each promoted by its own TV program,'' says Thomas Radecki, chairman of NCTV's board.
NCTV has collected the results of 43 studies of the impact of cartoon violence and/or violent play on children aged 3-11. ``Forty of these studies have reported at least some harmful effects including increases in loss of temper, fighting, kicking, choking, selfishness, cruelty to animals and disrespect to animals,'' says Dr. Radecki.
In New York, members of the New England War Resister's League protested outside the toy fair where the new toys were unveiled for 15,000 merchants. Though the toys aren't yet in stores, Variety, the show business trade paper, reports they've been ordered for 45 to 60 percent of the US market.
Elsewhere, editorials in newspapers and magazines have lashed out at the new toys. Advertising Age called the new toy/programming partnership ``a TV licence to steal, from kids.'' Adding that the burgeoning TV-syndication business is force-feeding the trend, the editorial lamented that little room is left for producers who might want to sell shows that ``make children think and help them grow up more gracefully.''
Toymakers are just as strident in defending their new toys. Douglas Thomson, president of Toy Manufacturers of America which sponsored the New York fair, disputes the notion that toys with guns foster violence. At a news conference he said he felt no fear of violence in a room filled with reporters who had played with Dick Tracy cap pistols and Davy Crockett rifles as children.