Boston — ``People would like us to say this is horrible - terrible for kids,'' says Clemson University sociologist John Ryan. ``But we can't. It depends on whether you want your kids to be consumer-oriented or not.''
He's talking in part about those Saturday morning cartoons that star actual toys sold in retail stores. Ironically, they're not banned in a children's TV bill passed recently by the United States House of Representatives and now with the Senate Commerce Committee. It's one of the bill's many gaping holes, say some TV activists.
The trouble is, objections to such shows are hard to document. Even a declared enemy of kiddy oversell like Professor Ryan has to admit you can't really prove the damage.
``Kids are being pitched to constantly - in all sorts of programs,'' says Mr. Ryan. ``I'm not sure these toy-based shows are any worse than Mickey Mouse Clubs when we were growing up. When `Davy Crockett' was on, I went out and bought a Davy Crockett coonskin cap.''
Industry spokesmen point to the marketing of toys like Muppets or Big Bird, based on shows highly praised by reformers. There's nothing inherently wrong with the commercial system, the argument goes. Cy Schneider, veteran producer of children's commercials and programs, says reformers don't understand children's television and that it wouldn't exist without advertiser support.
But commercial toy-based shows are a little different, Ryan feels. ``If there was no product, there'd be no program,'' he says. ``We call it product-based programming.''
Does he find that constant exposure to such programs has ill effects on kids in later life?
``No. I don't think so. ... If the show were particularly violent, there might be. Most of these shows are not.''
But can kids really tell when they're being pitched to and when they're not?
Very clearly, says Ryan. His tests suggest kids can tell ads from the show itself by the time they're in the first grade.
``We showed first-graders some tapes and asked them if this is a commercial or the program,'' Ryan states, ``and they said, `Oh, this is a commercial.' They were also able to say that the ads make toys look better in the commercial than they really are. It's quite surprising.''
What isn't so surprising, he says, is that enough viewing like that makes some children captives of the manufacturers. Knowing ads are ads doesn't change the results.
``Just like adults,'' says Ryan. ``You know when you're being sold a Datsun 300ZX, but that doesn't mean you want it any less. The kids who watch the show the most know a lot more about the toys than other kids. They want the toys more. They've got more of them. So the shows are obviously good marketing tools. ... These toys become status symbols. A kid feels he or she has got to have a real Transformer, not a $1.99 imitation.''
But why should kids have to have their shows loaded with commercials like that?
``It's a fact of life in the US,'' Ryan says. ``It's the way we do television. If you can't attract advertisers, then you don't have a show. Whether or not it's bad for kids is really a philosophical question. But what we're doing is initiating children into a consumer culture. The question is whether they're being unnecessarily manipulated or not.''
Does Ryan himself feel they are?
``I'd just as soon not have any commercials. I don't like to see that aspect of our culture being emphasized at such an early age. It makes children acquisition-oriented - all seeking the next product that's going to solve our problems. ... We need other solutions.''
``It's a great opportunity for parents to sit down with kids and say, `This is what they're trying to do - get you to want things.'''
Kids may know the ads from the program, says Peggy Charren - a founding mother of TV activism. ``What they don't understand is that the whole show is one big commercial.''
It's a case, she feels, of children's programming being determined by toymakers and others who have something besides the child's best interest as their primary goal.
``The marketplace does not work to limit commercials for children,'' she says, ``because children like them. Adults don't like them. When they get a VCR, they zap them. Children do not zap commercials. They don't recognize when they're being manipulated. They don't realize the reason `My Little Pony' and `G.I. Joe' are on is to sell the product.''
That creates an even bigger problem, she says. Such shows ``do away with all the other kinds of programming for children. If you can make a lot of money doing it one way, you don't want to do it another way.'' And it's exactly the kind of abuse, she says, that proves steps beyond parental attention are needed.
The system has been typical of US children's TV from its inception. Even if ratings suggest that the commercial appeal of toy-based shows is wearing off, the fact that they could thrive unimpeded is what many people see as the problem. Critics can point to the glaring contrast this system makes with kids' TV in other nations, where the young have tended to be protected from commercialism and provided with shows geared for specific age groups. A recent survey by the association of Independent TV Stations acknowledged the need in the US for more station awareness of the age-gender differences of viewers.
In the US, kids have historically been commercial marks, say many critics. By 1960, in fact, the FCC had told broadcasters they weren't living up to their duty to the public - including kids - and told them to start studying the programming needs of these younger viewers.
In those days, debates raged over violence and crime on children's shows. Does dramatized violence actually cause antisocial acts? asked broadcasters. Prove it.
The proof - or a step toward it - came in the early '60s with a surgeon general's report. It combined separate studies by business people and reformers, and like so many hybrid pronouncements, stepped gingerly around the issue. Yes, there was indeed a link, it found. But no, the government - and its regulators, like the FCC - shouldn't step in with rules. Let broadcasters themselves decide.
That had a familiar ring to activists, who feared the worst. Are broadcasters likely to produce shows that entertain and instruct at the same time? What about programmers whose main interest is helping children, not commercially milking them?
If this sounds like a cue for ``Sesame Street'' and ``Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,'' you're right. Such public TV series have long since earned treasured places in the growing-up memories of many adults.
But it took a watershed event: the 1967 Carnegie Commission on Educational TV, leading to the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which set up nonprofit TV stations around the country.
The result: children's programming that was creative, entertaining, and ``educational'' all at once. Yes, it took talent, determination, and lots and lots of money. But these new shows proved what could be done when the will was there.
Tomorrow: The hard road to reform.