THIS MORNING, television will sell the children of America candy, toys, dolls and an almost limitless variety of sugar-coated cereals.
And also violence and war.
In the mid-'70s, the networks seemed to be cleaning up their Saturday morning cartoon ghettos. Violence levels in programs were reduced, "bumpers" were added to separate more clearly program content from commercials, and "prosocial" values were injected into even the most inane of cartoons. But this era of reform appears over.
In a recent complaint filed with the Federal Communications Commission, the Boston-based Action for Children's Television (ACT), which helped bring about some of the earlier, if short-lived, reforms, charged that many children's TV shows on networks and in syndication now are nothing more than program-length commercials for toys and games that feature the characters in the shows.
And the National Coalition on Television Violence (NCTV) charges that some of those program-length commercials, and other kiddie shows generally, promote violence so successfully that sales of violent toys, which dropped dramatically during the Vietnam war, are skyrocketing again. NCTV estimates that $50 million will be spent on TV advertising of so-called "action figures" this year and says sales of war toys have doubled nationally from 1979, to a 1982 record-year total of $72 million.
"On a program like 'HeMan and Masters of the Universe,' they attempt to put prosocial material in there for little 15- and 30-second flashes," says NCTV chairman Thomas Radecki from his office at the University of Illinois. "They'll have something like a lecture about being kind to animals. But the whole rest of the cartoon shows nonstop combat between good and bad guys, and it's never suggested that there is any way other than combat to solve these conflicts."
Radecki says Americans and their children were sensitized to violence during the Vietnam war, when the real thing appeared nightly on newscasts, but that now a desensitizing is setting in. He cites movies like "Conan the Barbarian," "Tron" and even "Star Wars" as spreading the gospel that violence can be "a lot of fun."
NCTV specifically criticizes "the new trend of producing violent cartoon shows to promote lines of violent toys," citing as offenders such shows as the CBS "Dungeons and Dragons" and the new NBC "Mr. T" cartoon. Radecki has said, "America's broadcasters are being quite irresponsible in heavily advertising and promoting violence to America's children" and claims that "the first TV generation has grown up to be the most violent adult generation this century."
In addition to the over-the-air violence children see regularly, there's the endless laser-blasting that goes on in arcades, where video games virtually all depend on pulverizing and vaporizing imaginary enemies. Radecki says the new line of laser-disc video games, which replace the old dots and dashes with fully animated heroes and villains, make the violence in video games more realistic than ever.
ACT president Peggy Charren said yesterday from Boston that the ACT complaint against program-length commercials has elicited the most enthusiastic reponse in ACT's 15-year-history of knuckle-rapping and looking-with-alarm. "It really hit a public nerve in the right way," said Charren. "We've had tons of mail on it, telegrams from total strangers, a groundswell of support for this issue because, I think, the broadcasters finally went too far. Now we have on our side people who normally don't pay too much attention to issues like this."
Among those who normally don't pay much attention are TV newscasters. "We never got covered on television before, only in print," said Charren. "This is the best coverage we ever got on TV. We were on Dan Rather, 'Nightline,' 'MacNeil/Lehrer,' and for three nights on 'Entertainment Tonight.' "
In the beginning were Mickey and Minnie. When Walt Disney's characters became part of popular mythology, toys and games were fashioned around them. What today's toy manufacturers do is put the watch before the mouse. They invent the merchandise and then fashion a TV cartoon around it. Thus children watching "The Smurfs," Charren claims, are watching a program-length cartoon for Smurf merchandise, one that is interrupted for commercial-length commercials for other products.
Children sitting in front of their sets are getting a steady bombardment of "buy-me" messages.
The Smurfs actually did begin as creatures invented by a Belgian cartoonist, not as stuffed animals. But Strawberry Shortcake and the Care Bears are purely the creations of Kenner Toys and American Greetings Corp. Next week these insipid fuzz-balls will cute their ways through a week-long series of 30-minute specials airing on Channel 20 here. The specials are sponsored by Kenner, which makes the toys.
Charren was asked if she realistically expected much action on this matter from an FCC that, under chairman Mark Fowler, is openly committed to doing away with all regulations that hamper the broadcasting industry in its quest for ever more excessive profits; this process is euphemistically referred to as "deregulation." Charren says, "I believe that with an election year coming up, even those regulators are under some pressure not to look as though they don't care about anything, including children. The Reagan administration wants to give the impression that it cares about everyone from Hispanics to women; image is everything when it comes to elections.
"And so, optimist that I am, I think they are really going to do something serious about this."
Radecki, for his part, wants parents to write to Congress in support of Rep. Timothy Wirth's (D-Colo.) bill that would require broadcasters to program an hour a day of useful educational programming for children. NCTV also supports legislation to require counteradvertising that would tell children violence and violent toys are unhealthful.
Asked if turning a stick into a sword isn't a more-or-less natural impulse for a tot, TV cartoons or not, Radecki says, "In reality, that's just not true. There is nothing genetic that teaches someone to use a weapon. That's something that is learned. If kids weren't seeing that on television, and depending on what other things they were exposed to, they wouldn't think of violence as the solution to all problems. In cultures where those lessons are not taught, those lessons are not learned."
Tony Schwartz, the pioneering media consultant in New York, says he thinks that television mirrors, rather than causes, violence in real life. "We live in a war society," Schwartz says. "The best way to get warfare off television is to stop warfare in life. You stop the war that makes the news." And Charren says that while she is alarmed that television is "again selling children on the idea of war," she also says, "It's probably worse that presidents talk about war than that children do. Still, I don't think it's going to spread warmth, love and friendship throughout the world."
"G.I. Joe" made the world safe again for war toys, Charren says. "They bill 'G.I. Joe' as the great American hero," says Radecki. "Whatever happened to Abraham Lincoln and Ben Franklin?"
Schwartz does share Radecki's alarm at the violence in video games. Kids in video arcades now play games with names like "Bomb Squad," "Avenger," "Megamania," "Berserk" and even "Communist Mutants From Outer Space." Schwartz has written, "Children's games are preparation for life. Today's computer games are preparation for future wars . . . It's a shame that today's games can't prepare children for peace, the only kind of future possible in a nuclear age."
Radecki says, "According to our research, between 85 and 90 percent of video games in arcades are based upon the commission of a violent act, whether it's destroying invaders from outer space or shooting somebody with a handgun, as in 'Berserk.' Children are basically rehearsing games of violence when they play."
Whether with program-length commercials for useless products they will beg their parents to buy or with glamorizations of crashing and bashing and destruction, children of the video age are perpetually being blitzed, bombarded and importuned. Newsweek recently called children's television "a national disgrace." In the face of all this carnage and commercialism, it doesn't seem too strong a phrase.