Kids' TV: a hard, but hopeful, road to reform

It may not seem a likely site for a revolution. But it's where kids' TV activism took a giant step in 1968. When Action for Children's Television first started - right in Peggy Charren's kitchen in Newtonville, Mass. - kids were viewing hours of technically graceless cartoons starring superheroes and monsters. There were more ads per hour on these shows than during adult prime time - and that ratio fell neatly within the code of the National Association of Broadcasters. The children's medium as a whole was not the diverse library of programming it should have been, reformers felt.

The efforts of ``agitators'' have born fruit in the form a children's TV bill - passed by the House and currently with the Senate Commerce Committee - that is the focus of hope on the part of Ms. Charren and many of her colleagues.

Today industry and government tend to listen when ACT and other activists speak. But originally, Charren and her band were treated as quixotic cranks questioning station owners' inalienable right to program what they wanted. Yet ACT began making noise - lots of noise, and very effectively - to publicize how little TV was doing for kids and to lean on the Federal Communications Commission.

Eventually some 100,000 letters about children's TV swamped the FCC - probably the biggest response it had ever had. Both the agency and industry felt they had to listen to embattled parents and other activists. The climate of the times demanded it. Guidelines for ad limits were established. Stations were put on notice that they must pay attention to young viewers. Hosts were prevented from stepping into the role of pitchman.

It all fell apart in 1981, when the Reagan administration began dismantling regulation in general. Many of the reforms made in the 1970s disappeared. Look at all the other options kids have today, the government said. We can't expect over-the-air broadcasters to do it all.

``They had a kind of Marie Antoinette `let-them-eat-cable attitude,''' says Charren. ``That approach is fine for affluent families with kids lucky enough to have pay cable. But if you want to watch Shelley Duvall's `Fairy Tale Theater,' you have to get HBO. Other choices might require movie channels. Even today, it's too soon to let broadcasting off the hook when it comes to serving the child audience. The alternate technologies are not equally available to the poor.''

As viewer interest in the whole animated world of kids' TV wanes, broadcasters are looking for the next way to get kids' attention.

``Interactive shows'' are a recent wrinkle. ``You shoot at them and they at you,'' explains Charren. A program like ``Captain Power'' illustrates her point. First, children have to buy a toy gun - and this is really what it's all about, some charge. Then they sit in front of the TV and aim at the screen, scoring points for hits.

Groups like the National Coalition Against Television Violence condemned the practice in a study, and the program hired a psychiatrist to defuse it by shortening the battle scenes. But meanwhile, other toymakers are working on ``two-way TV'' systems - including videodisc players - to let kids change what's happening on screen even more. Some of the systems are innocuous enough, like changing the plot or telling ``Sesame Street's'' Big Bird what song to sing.

But others promise to bring arcade-style shootouts into the living room. That's why activists cheer about a recent court case bolstering their cause. In June, 1987, the US Court of Appeals told the FCC - in judicial language, of course - it was out of its mind to claim the marketplace inherently limits the commercials on children's TV. The notion was, in the ruling's notable phrase, ``an unthinkable bureaucratic conclusion.''

Such cases help give proponents the clout to deal with industry. ``They can't say it's those ladies from Massachusetts any more,'' Charren says.

``The only station obligation is to serve the public, and that means some choice and diversity. Over the years we have defined what that means in terms of adults - news and and public affairs, local programming. We have never defined it for children. We're saying you have to supply those for kids, even if only some of them watch them.''

Longtime child advocates tend to agree - people like Marshall A. Levin, currently a judge and ``special master'' in Baltimore, who has previously been heavily involved in children's rights cases and published law-review articles on the subject,

He claims little expertise on TV specifically, but is quick to assert, ``The less obnoxious commercial television can be in selling products to children, the better. I don't see how anyone could argue with that. Children are so impressionable and the medium so potent, there has to be some kind of a time limitation.''

Can this be done without inhibiting broadcasters' rights?

``I'm not for any impairment of First-Amendment rights,'' says Judge Marshall, ``but there's all sorts of precedent with respect to children, giving them the benefit of the doubt.'' Big Brother is more appropriate, he feels, with young children than with adults who press the limits of expression.

His judicial attitude may be a key to future advances, many think. Charren says, ``Part of the solution is going to come from the courts.'' And this bill should form a strong basis for that.

That does not mean limiting free speech, as far as ACT is concerned. The group actually praised a recent federal appeals court ruling, for instance, which told the FCC it could not limit ``indecent'' programming to the hours of midnight to 6 a.m.

As for the holes in the bill, Charren says ACT will try to resist the worst of the commercial abuses not dealt with. But generally, ``ACT will be focusing on the whole,'' she says.

``We'll be making some non-legal noises about what's missing: Where's the news for children? Where's the music? Where's the multi-cultural programming from around the world - the fairy tales from Africa and India, the international animation?''

And when the reformers get what they want?

``In the long range,'' she says, ``I hope there isn't going to be any need for ACT. This issue will be taken care of. Things will never be perfect, but the new technologies are helping. The more channels there are, the more hope there is. The bottom line is a new sense of how important children are for America in the '90s.''

Previous articles ran Aug. 10 and 11.

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