SENIOR bureaucrats at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are wrapping a Christmas gift marked ``children's television rules'' and deciding whether to be naughty or nice to America's young.
Before the holiday, staffers will deliver position papers to the five presidentially appointed FCC commissioners on how to deal with petitions from public watchdog groups asking that they harden their guidelines on commercial children's TV. Based on the recommendations, the commissioners will rule early in 1995.
The issue revolves around the Children's Television Act. Congress passed it in 1990 to help control electronic excesses by the multibillion-dollar ``kidvid'' industry. The networks and their stations alone earn more than $500 million a year from hard-sell advertising spots for toys, games, breakfast cereals, soft drinks, fast foods, running gear, and teen fashions.
The act limits the amount of commercial time in children's programs and calls on TV stations to air ``educational and informational'' programs for the young.
There's the rub. The FCC has historically had a far tighter relationship with the industry than with children. So the commissioners were predictably fuzzy in drawing up the rules putting teeth in the act. ``Educational and informational'' programs were deemed vaguely to be those ``that further the positive development of the child in any respect'' (italics added). The FCC was equally hazy about enforcement and compliance standards.
Predictably, TV stations seized on the loophole to claim in performance reports to the FCC that ``The Jetsons,'' ``Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,'' `The Flintstones,'' ``G.I. Joe,'' and even the tele-tabloid ``Inside Edition'' have serious educational content.
This year, parent-teacher groups, the National Education Association, the Center for Media Education, and others prodded the FCC to lay down tougher guidelines. Lobbyists for the industry counterargued before the FCC that high-quality children's programs are too expensive to produce and drag down ratings as the networks confront competition from cable.
In an application of the Constitution that would stand the Founding Fathers' wigs on end, the industry also argues that anything that restricts them on content and quantity is an infringement of their right of free speech. In August, for instance, Jeff Baumann, executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters, said: ``We will continue to convince the FCC that the marketplace is working and that quantitative guidelines are clearly unconstitutional.''
The object of the kidvid business is to deliver large audiences of young consumers to the likes of McDonald's, Mattel toys, Kellogg cereals, and Disney movies, and to receive dollars or equivalent financial considerations from the sponsors and product merchandisers. The business is also built on fudging the line between content and merchandising. To maximize retail sales, program-related products are built into the plots. A billion-dollars-worth of ``Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers'' products will be sold by year's end, topping the previous record sales of Cabbage Patch dolls ($550 million) and Ninja Turtle accessories ($450 million).
Critics see the TV amusement industry as converting America's children into a commodity. Fox promises potential advertisers in promotional literature that it will deliver ``more young viewers'' to sponsors than any other network. A sales brochure for Ted Turner's cable Cartoon Network refers to ``these powerful little consumers'' who ``influence $130 billion in purchasing power annually.''
Parents serve their kids up to corporate salesmen when they use kidvid as a babysitter. The Child Welfare League of America estimates that 8 million to 10 million families have children whom parents leave in front of TV sets before and after school.
Take a look at Saturday morning kidvid on Fox, CBS, or ABC (NBC has dropped kidvid). The need for tougher standards will be as clear as the screen at your face. It is deep immersion, not just in hypermerchandising but in hyper- mania. One program is called ``Animania.'' There are toy ads on ``Lego Mania'' and ``Mickey Mania.'' The cartoon world is a cascade of unrelenting motion and noise, dizzying images and whirling camera angles, edited fast cuts and computer-generated effects, pitches and promos, violence and disorder.
The opening sequence of ``The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers'' lashes its young viewers with 35 scene changes in 20 seconds, punctuated by the driving, high-decibel hammer blows of ``Go, Go Power Rangers.'' Its assembly-line plot is a clone of the others: ``Batman and Robin,'' ``Teen-age Mutant Ninja Turtles,'' ``Cryptkeeper,'' ``Monster Force.''
The setting is psuedoscientific. The formula is chase, battle, and danger from ``the paralyzing power and malicious magnetizing of the `Pulverizing Paralyzer,' '' wielded by monstrous aliens to ``demolecularize and disintegrate the planet,'' or ``seize the country,'' or ``turn the city into rubble.''
TV watchers at the University of Pennsylvania have identified an average of 25 acts of violence an hour on Saturday morning kidvid, a dramatic increase from 20 years ago. A long-term study by Dr. Leonard P. Eron of the University of Michigan found that young frequent viewers of TV violence behave more aggressively and were more likely to commit crimes from their teens into adulthood.
Kidvid is the ultimate conditioning tool. Power, force, and duress are the overriding themes of the look-alike plots. There is a social pecking order in this representational cartoon world: Evil aliens who threaten vulnerable victims (represented by the young viewers themselves) and superhuman rescuers whom they would like to be like, dress like, and look like. Conflicts are resolved, not by reason or negotiation, but in the crash and bash of battle, with death by ray gun and laser spray.
All this is interspersed by the ceaseless messages of consumption: pitches for Barbie dolls or Newborn Nancy, Star Wars play figures, Fruit by the Foot, Golden Grahams, Disney films, Spielberg's Jurassic Park toys. Fast cuts artfully foreshorten attention spans and short-circuit critical judgments. The children are predisposed to an adult tele-future glued to QVC, the Home Shopping Network, and MTV.
In kidvid, there is nothing that even hints of reality: no parents, no grandparents, no poor, no minorities, no ideas or issues. As a token to ``education and information,'' a spot is nested in the commercial pod preaching racial harmony, good behavior at the shopping mall, or safe and sober driving - at 15 seconds a crack.
From the cradle to high school graduation, the young will absorb an average of 18,000 hours of this kind of TV storytelling. Dr. George Gerbner of the University of Pennsylvania says: ``For the first time in human history, most of the stories that [children] are told about people, life, and values are told not by parents, schools, churches, and communities that have something to tell, but by a small group of conglomerates that have something to sell.''
There is a great difference between these stories and classic myths, fairy tales, or Shakespeare, with their splashes of blood and battles. Selectively told, such well-structured tales teach eloquent lessons about values, such as restraining passions. In kidvid, there is no restraint.
The advocates of better kidvid want the FCC commissioners to require all TV stations to carry at least one hour per day of essentially good children's television, such as ``Barney,'' ``Sesame Street,'' and ``Beakman's World,'' as opposed to violence-based kidvid that shapes children's views of a mean, menacing world.
There is a lot of fine kidvid on public television. But incoming Republicans in Congress say they intend to throttle public broadcasting in the name of free enterprise. This prompted one citizens'-action official to invoke Speaker-elect Newt Gingrich and remark: ``The man who promised to reinforce American families is now eager to pull the plug on Big Bird and Barney.''
The kidvid issue underscores how imperative it is that America have the public debate it has so far avoided: Does TV's profit-driven marketplace really work, especially when it converts our posterity into a commodity? This is not a business issue but a moral question. Are Fox, Mattel, McDonald's, and L.A. Gear really the broadcasting specialists best suited to pick the stories that TV tells to our progeny? We'll soon bear witness to what the five men and women on the FCC think. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.