The moms and dads of America have less than two weeks to do something about improving children's television. All it will take is thousands and thousands of letters to the Federal Communications Commissions, which is about to consider whether new rules governing children's TV should be drawn up.
To encourage those letters, Peggy Charren, a cofounder and president of Action for Children's Television in Boston, would go door-to-door licking stamps and sealing the envelopes if she could. ACT has been in the forefront of gripers attempting to bring about improvements at networks and local stations.
They're been successful to some extent. TV kiddie show hosts, for instance, no longer permitted to personally push products during their shows, and stations have to make it clear to children where the program ends and the commercial begins. But most TV programming for children is still junk, and cheap junk at the, saturated with spiels for candy-coated cereals.
The FCC's rule-making, if there were any, would affect programming aimed at children 12 and under.Networks and stations have had years to improve their offerings and policies, and now some sort of governmental nudge might be advisable. However, it could be that if the FCC tries to bring about substantial change through regulation, Congress will rise up in defense of special interest and slap it down the way it did with the Federal Trade Commission.
The FTC literally went out of business for one day recently when its funds ran out. Congress was in a rant over, among other things, the FTC's alleged audacity in merely considering the possibility of regulating the way sugary cereals and snacksy-wacksies are relentlessly peddled to toddlers by television.
The TV lobby and the food lobby have all had plenty of opportunity to throw their weight around. Now parents and the rest of the public -- children, as well -- have a chance to sound off. But letters must be received at the FCC by June 2 to be included in the tally. The address is Federal Communications Commission, 1919 M St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20554.
Charren and her group have set up a couple dozen information centers around the country to encourage this letter-writing effort, recently kicked off with a New York press conference unveiling the group's "Children's TV Check-Up Campaign." The more-or-less slogan is "Examine, Diagnose and Prescribe," meaning, take a look at what TV is doing for kids, analyze it, and suggest ways it could be improved.
What would Charren like the letters to tell the FCC? "If we wrote the comments, we'd say that most TVstations just don't provide enough shows to meet children's needs," Charren says. "Service is minuscule in just about every part of the country. The only regular good program for young children other than a few public TV is 'Captain Kangaroo.'"
Charren also thinks it is within the FCC's purview to regulate the amount and frequency of TV advertising directed at children, especially during the cartoonious Saturday morning kiddie ghetto.
"They could restrict commercials to the hour and the half-hour, instead of every few minutes," says Charren. "That's how they do it in England. It helps parents deal with advertising directed at their children. You can come into the room every half hour and tell them, 'No, candy at work, rest or play is NOT good for your teeth,' to counter what the commercials say."
The networks have taken great pains to point out the "pro-social" messages now injected into many of their Saturday morning shows. The violence has been toned way down, so that even though the cheap cartoons are filled with vampires and monsters chasing kids and their dogs all over creation, no one ever gets massacred, and children are unlikely to be terrified. But this is no great accomplishment. It might be better if the fantasy were richer and children were terrified; as it is, the forced frolic is not conductive to imagination but debilitating to it.
Have the networks miraculously reformed for next season? Let's look at the lineups. On CBS, starting in the fall, Saturday mornings will consist of "The Mighty Mouse-Heckle and Jeckle Show," "The Tom & Jerry Comedy Show," "The Bugs Bunny-Road Runner Show" (going into its second decade of reruns), "The All-New Popeye Hour," "The Drac Pack," "The New Fat Albert Show" and "The Lone Ranger-Tarzen Adventure Hour."
ABC will enlighten small fry with "The Superfriends Hour" (Superman, Wonderwoman, etc.), "It's a Comedy Blockbuster" (featuring Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo and an animated version of "Happy Days"), "Thundarr" (sci-fi cartoon) and "ABC Weekend Specials," the only live-action entry in the bunch.
And over at NBC, which dumped the ambitiious and innovative "Hot Hero Sandwich" after only 11 episodes, it will be business as usual: "The Godzilla-Dynomutt Hour," "The Flintstones Comedy Show," "The Space Stars," The Daffy Duck Show," and a new token good deed effort, "Drawing Power."
Let's hope the FCC mailbox gets filled to the boiling point.