AMERICAN TELEVISION treats children like adults and adults like children. Long before 18-year-olds got the vote, youth got the dollar and thus was enfranchised. Television advertising directed at the young helped mobilize and unite kids as a subculture; there were no "teenagers" until the video '50s. This was the real greening of America - the gree-backing of America.
The age at which one becomes a franchised consumer has been progressively lowered by television. Not only are choldren and their come-on cuteness exploited in commercial after commercial for products that may have nothing whatever to do with children, but million of dollars in TV advertising is aimed specifically at kids. When you've stopped wearing diapers, they consider you old enough to be sold to.
If television regards children as adult consumers, capable of making informed spending decisions, however, prime-time network TV still treats its adult viewers as arrested adolescents, as noted by the perceptive Michael Arlen in a recent New Yorker column. On show after show, the hero or heroine is an adult who behaves like a kid - sometimes like a punk kid, as in the case of ABC's thug prince, Mr. Dese Dem & Dose himself, Robert "Baretta" Blake.
"Charlie's Angels" depends for its success on providing the peekaboo cheesecake thrills that boys of a more innocent age hid in their sweater drawers. "Grizzly Adams" is an overgrown Eagle Scout. "Starsky and Hutch" are high school buddy-boys who obviously never grew up, and the system they are always fighting against is stubbornly adult and therefore corrupt. Even the gang on "M*A*S*H" has its unfortunate little-boy overtones.
Children are afforded more respect. On their own programs, prepared as showcases for commercials aimed at them, children are the heros, the sages and the rectifiers of wrongdoing by adults. Maybe this is only fair, because television is their medium. It's been given to them ABC has even based its entire prime-time schedule on winning their approval.
What's more, television has become the surrogate parent, the electronic guardian, for millions of the little darlings and now, says a recent TV Guide article, television is becoming not just Pied Piper but also the chief socializing instrument for the nation's youth. "Both adults and young people turn to television to learn what society considers appropriate behavior," writes Edwin Kiester Jr., "as they once turned to the family, the community or the church for guidance."
If America is becoming a nation in which adults cower in obedience to their children, television has helped bring this about. It has told children, among other things, that all consumers are created equal and that they are every bit the advertising targets that their parents are - maybe more so, since they have money of their own and considerable influence on their moms' and dads' spending patterns as well.
The point could not have been made any more dramatically or depressingly than it was in an advertisement by TV station WXNE of Boston in an August issue of Broadcasting Magazine. The ad was reprinted as an example of wrong-headedness by commercial broadcasters in "Re:ACT," the magazine of the Boston-based Action for Children's Television group.
"Kid power is coming to Boston," says the ad, directed at potential WXNE advertisers. "If you're selling, Charlie's mom is buying. But you've got to sell Charlie first. His allowance is only 50 cents a week but his buying power is an American phenomenon . . . When Charlie sees something he likes, he usually gets it. Just ask General Mills, McDonald's or Mattel . . .
"Of course, if you want to sell Charlie, you have to catch him when he's sitting down. Or at least standing still. And that's not easy. Lucky for you, Charlie's into TV . . ."
Advertisers are promised that "Charlie" will be a prisoner of WXNE's kid-luring lineup from 2:30 to 8 p.m. every day. The ad includes a picture of this prototypical kid with his fist raised. Obviously, his mom and dad are not going to get away with saying no.
Peggy Charren, founder and president of ACT, is naturally aghast at such techniques. Right now, her group is especially concerned about getting candy advertising aimed at children off the air, and in mid-January, she expects the Federal Trade Commission to issue a call for comment on a hefty petition ACT filed with the FTC in April, concurrent with the arrival of new and reputedly sympathetic FTC Chairman Michael Pertschuk.
"We know children are going to eat candy," says Charren, "but we don't think television should keep reminding them to eat it, to eat something they know their parents discourage. The ads tell them to eat candy everywhere, all the time - 'Milky Way, at work, rest or play,' that's literally what they tell them."
Broadcasters defend the advertising of sweets by comparing candy to cigarettes. Cigarette sales actually increased (after a short initial dip) when cigarette advertising was banned from TV. "Yes, but there might be more smoking still if the ads were still on," Charren says. "And in that case, the counter-commercials against smoking had a lot to do with the eventual ban going into effect. You can't do counter-commercials on candy; you can't show children being torn apart by the dentist. We don't think candy has to be outlawed, and it's even okay on television, but not when it's pushed to children.
"The two things sold to children most on TV are toys and food, and we've found that 98 per cent of the food advertising if for products children don't have to eat, non-nutritive things. Now in fact they're designing foods that would never be on the market if it weren't for television and its ability to sell them.They actually design junk cereals like Frankenberry and Cocoa Pebbles and Cookie Crisps because they can push them to kids on television."
When the FTC issues its call for comment, the public will be given a chance to mail letters on the subject to the commission for consideration in possible rule-making.
On the one hand, it's distressing when people try to blame allsocial ills on television, because this sort of thinking, carried to an extreme, turns television into a kind of witch to be pilloried and denounced. Such an attitude discourages thoughtful criticism.
On the other hand, it's becoming increasingly obvious that television plays an enormous formative role in the attitudes and behavior of all viewers and that children are especially susceptible to its incomparable power of suggestion. Charren thinks there should be no ads directed at children because they are incapable of making consumer decisions. It may be too late to take away from them, however, the consumer power television has given them. It is not too late to consider whether some restrictions shouldn't be made on just what TV can tell people to do, think and eat.
If TV is going to treat adults as children, probably the worst thing that will happen is that some adults will behve more choldishly than they already do. Who'll notice? But treating children as adults may have consequences far more dire and undesirable.
It's something worth worrying about, and we really can't depend on the kids to do the worrying. They're busy.