Boston — `WE look for something about the program that's worth patting on the back,'' says Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television. She's referring to how ACT makes its choices for its annual Achievement in Children's Television Awards, given this week to 17 highly varied offerings from TV, cable, and home video.
``That doesn't mean these are the best programs ever made,'' she explained by phone from ACT's office in Cambridge, Mass. ``We don't think there is such a thing, because the two-to-15-year-old age group is the most diverse period in human development, and there can't be one show that is terrific for all those kids. But ACT's general goal is to increase diversity and to decrease or eliminate commercial abuses, and also to help parents and kids deal with television in a meaningful way.''
Toward this end, ACT has been agitating for what it considers responsible TV programming for children since 1968, when four women began laying plans. By now it is the nation's best known and most-heeded child's advocacy group. Through its awards (this is the 15th year it has been issuing them), ACT tries to reward programs that take children seriously - like the NBC News ``Main Street'' segment on homelessness that was one of this years ACT winners.
``It's one of the few things that news departments anywhere in the country are now doing for kids,'' Ms. Charren says. ``Part of `Main Street' is glitzy, and it's a shame it isn't more than once a month, but it offers a totally different feeling about what it is to be homeless than you get even from the adult news. You feel the difference, for instance, when they interview a young girl in a shelter and get her to talk about how she's frightened to walk by all those beds and doesn't like keeping all her stuff under her bed and wishes she had a room with a window.''
In general, commercial TV's rush to sell products has gotten worse over the years, according to Charren. She points to shows that are ``program-length commercials'' whose characters are for sale in stores as dolls or toys. ``And not just the characters,'' she points out, ``but the environments they live in and the weapons they walk around with. The problem is that the kinds of shows we used to look at before and tried to make better have just about disappeared, and they've been replaced by pro-grams that are in fact manufacturers' catalogs.''
What's needed to correct this ``is not just to stop thinking of children as commercial targets,'' she says, ``but to stop thinking of them as unimportant people, which I think a lot of television does. That's why `Babies Having Babies' [one of the CBS Schoolbreak Specials] is getting our extra-special Stop Look and Listen Award. It's a wonderful portrayal of the problems of teen-age pregnancy from the point of view of five teen-agers. The network's after-school specials have always been good. That is one place they put not only some production money but also some common sense. Issues are handled in a reasonable way.''
Another bright spot, Charren thinks, is home video - one of the ACT awards categories. ``It's wonderful and makes a tremendous difference,'' she states, ``by creating a set of options for those parents who can afford to have the home video machine and to rent or and buy tapes, and for the parent who is educated enough to know what to look for.''
But ``what to look for'' in home vidoes can present a problem. ``The same companies responsible for these program-length TV commercials are putting a lot of money into the production and promotion of the same stuff in the home video market,'' Charren says. ``And the history shelves, the news and current events shelves, in the video library are empty, and that that's very sad.'' Parental guidance is especially important, it might be added, in video libraries where sex and violence are easily accessible to youngsters.
In the past several years, ACT has found the Federal Communications Commission less responsive to its efforts in behalf of responsible children's programming. Charren says she thinks ``the FCC changed from a kind of federal watchdog, which is what they're supposed to be, to an industry mascot, since Ronald Reagon appointed Mark Fowler as chairman [in 1981]. Before that we went through two Republican and one Democratic adminstration where the FCC said children are important. So it isn't a political-party problem.''
An ACT award is more than a symbol to its winners. It helps parents decide what their kids should be watching, but for producers it can mean more exposure, more program sales. ``The industry seems to feel an award helps in the syndication market and that they do help the sales pitch of the product,'' Charren says.
Winners of Action for Children's Television's
1987 Achievement in Children's Television Awards Stop, Look & Listen Award:
``Babies Having Babies'' (CBS Schoolbreak Specials)
``Main Street'' (NBC News)
Public Broadcasting Service:
``Reading Rainbow'' (Lancit Media Productions)
``Wonderworks'' (WQED-TV, Pittsburgh)
``Zoobilee Zoo'' (Hallmark)
``Music Magic'' (King 5 TV, Seattle)
``Mac and Mutley'' (KPIX-TV, San Francisco)
``Three Stories Tall'' (WRC-TV, Wash., D.C.)
``The Wind in the Willows'' (Disney Channel)
``Zoo Family'' (Nickelodeon)
``Shelley Duvall's Tall Tales and Legends'' (Showtime/The Movie Channel)
``Corduroy and Other Bear Stories'' (CC Studios)
``Home Alone'' (Hi-Tops Video)
``The Elephant's Child'' (Random House Home Video/Rabbit Ears Productions)
``Kim and Jerry Brodney: Hats On/Hats Off'' (Whitman Golden Ltd.)
Public Service Campaign:
``For Kids' Sake'' (Westinghouse/Group W/WBZ-TV, Boston)
``We the People'' (WNEV-TV, Boston)