The man behind the silver bangs calls for more children's TV
New York — Here at CBS studios, America's longest-televised children's personality - in red suit, mustache, and bushy silver bangs - holds up a year-old headline: ''FCC tells kids to get lost.''
''There is not going to be any future for children's TV Monday through Friday on commercial network TV. Not for the foreseeable future,'' says Bob Keeshan, television's Captain Kangaroo, a grave seriousness creeping into the familiar, mellifluous voice.
His carpeted ninth-floor suite is just down the hall from ''60 Minutes,'' one of the network's perennial ratings blockbusters. But a much greater distance than that separates the Captain from what he sees as the prevailing philosophy at CBS and the two other major networks concerning children's television.
Saturday marked the start of the 30th season for Captain Kangaroo, which was elbowed to weekends in recent years instead of the Monday-through-Friday slot the show held for nearly three decades. Mr. Keeshan says: ''If government attitudes toward deregulation should change over the next several years, there might be a reversion to the kind of programming that we (once) saw - because stations were concerned about their obligations to minority audiences, of which children are one. But I don't foresee that happening.''
The deregulation he refers to took effect last December, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) dropped its requirement that broadcasters include a minimum number of hours of certain kinds of programming, including children's shows. Because those networks need more than moppet-size viewers with moppet-size pocketbooks to attract advertisers, the man with the famous bangs, friend to millions of American children, has trod on narrower and narrower turf ever since.
Come December, when he hangs up the keys to the Kangaroo Treasure House, the music may stop for good for TV's most famous Captain and crew: Mr. Moose, Bunny Rabbit, Grandfather Clock, Dancing Bear, and Mr. Greenjeans.
Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television (ACT), doesn't mince words when it comes to the Captain's departure.
''I think this is a perfect indication of how the three commercial networks have finally decided it isn't worth doing just about anything for children,'' she says. ''Captain Kangaroo'' was ''the only daily program for children on network television, and with its demise there isn't even a single weekly program , Monday through Friday. That's outrageous in a civilized society, I think.''
Keeshan would like to hop over to a new slot with PBS - one spacious enough to accommodate five of his entertainment/educational escapades a week, not just the two CBS now allows.
''They (PBS) are virtually the exclusive guardians of quality children's TV at the moment,'' he says, citing such shows as ''Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood,'' ''Sesame Street,'' and ''Reading Rainbow.'' But as yet the corporate underwriters needed to sponsor ''Captain Kangaroo'' on PBS have not stepped forward, although Keeshan remains confident.
Keeshan carved out his daily television niche when the medium was young. After a stint with the Marines in World War II, he returned home to a page job with CBS. There he met Bob Smith of ''Howdy Doody'' fame. He played Clarabelle the Clown for five years, before producing and performing a children's show entitled ''Tinker the Toymaker.'' Then on Oct. 3, 1955, he opened his Treasure House doors.
''Kids may well be much more sophisticated today than then,'' he says. ''But that's not basic to me. That's a veneer. Kids have a greater vocabulary than children of 25 years ago. They have a knowledge of the world around them that's probably more extensive. And all of that probably has to do with TV viewing.
''But when you scratch them and get below that, the child is still asking the same questions as the child of 25 years ago: Who am I? Am I of value? Am I loved? Do I have a future?''
Keeshan says a station once wrote to him and asked if he tried to answer those questions as an educator or entertainer.
''I responded, '100 percent of each.' I don't believe that the line is properly drawn. If we are to teach, we have to entertain. I don't think it's wrong for a college professor or a kindergarten teacher to do a tap dance once in a while, if the tap dance enables that teacher to communicate, to impart knowledge.''
When it comes to imparting values, he says, the right way is through a dominant human character, not through cartoon superheroes on Saturday mornings or even masses of puppets like those on ''Sesame Street.''
''Strong personalities like Mr. Rogers do create an intimate kind of relationship that can be very instructional,'' he says.
Obviously there is a limit, he adds, to how far television can go in helping to develop children along positive lines. ''The child that's 2, 3, or 4 years of age sitting in front of a TV is not getting peer-group experience at an age when we grow more than at any other time in our human experience; when we are learning how to accommodate; when we're learning all those values of love and trust, and learning that we are of value ourselves. We have to learn those things from interacting with mother, from having conversations with dad, ... or doing things together, or acting with other children.''
Keeshan is concerned that the vast majority of American households use TV as a baby sitter.
''All of us ought to be concerned,'' he says, ''not just the people who are in broadcasting. TV is the greatest cultural influence on children of all ages. The broadcasters obviously have a responsibility to present programming that is of value, that a parent can use. But if the parent does not exercise his or her responsibility and simply says, 'I'm busy. Go watch TV,' TV is filling a vacuum.''
ACT's Peggy Charren takes issue with Keeshan's criticism of parents as slow or unwilling to campaign for good children's television. She notes that over 150 major national organizations from the United Steel Workers to the Parent Teacher Association have been very active for over 16 years, both in efforts to heighten the public's awareness of problems and in raising money to lobby legislators.
''I think it's unfair of Mr. Keeshan to blame deregulation on the parents not being organized enough,'' she says.
And not everyone agrees with Mr. Keeshan's view that the current deregulation of broadcasting spells the demise of good network programming for young viewers. George Schweitzer, vice-president of the CBS Broadcast Group, says no regulation is needed. ''Television for children has to be judged in the context of the wide audience that broadcasters serve - the interests of a large, diverse population with many different needs and interests. Certainly we take our responsibility to serving children very, very seriously.''
Keeshan is supporting bills sponsored by Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey and Rep. Timothy E. Wirth (D) of Colorado that would require television stations to broadcast daily at least one hour of programming ''designed to enhance the education'' of children.
Senator Lautenberg, in introducing the Senate version of the bill recently, said: ''The state of children's television is terrible. ... We now have about four hours of children's programming a week,'' compared with 10 hours a week in 1974.
An hour with Keeshan is far from an exercise in sour grapes, however. He lauds CBS for being the last commercial network holdout when it came to children's television. ''Actually I think they were very decent about it. They truly tried to find a solution. Now that the marketplace is the sole criterion for judging what goes on TV, CBS executives are doing what they should be doing, '' said the Captain, with a tone of gentle resignation.