WE ARE IN ANDY HEYWARD'S CREAM-COLORED suite of offices, talking about children's television. I keep thinking he looks a little like the Ghostbuster who is a scientific genius, with those serious eyes that don't seem to blink behind round glasses. Except Heyward's glasses frames are pink. They coordinate with his pink shirt and pink socks. He owns more than a hundred pairs of frames, all coordinated to his shirts and socks, and he has a special cabinet at home to house them all.
Last year, TV Guide called Heyward, who is 42, the "No. 1 creative genius of kids' shows." The Burbank, Calif.-based company he heads, DIC Enterprises, supplied more animated programming -- on networks, independent stations and cable -- than anyone else. Now, he is telling me about "New Kids on the Block"; not the rock group, but the Saturday morning DIC cartoon based on the rock group.
Suddenly, he asks me how old my children are. I tell him that I have a 5-year-old son, Noah, and a 10-year-old daughter, Sarah.
"Does she like 'New Kids on the Block'?" he asks, leaning forward in his seat.
"She hates 'New Kids on the Block.' "
"Oh, no," he says, falling back.
I tell him Sarah likes PBS science and math shows like "3-2-1 Contact" and "Square One," and enjoyed "Sesame Street" until she was about 7.
"She's really unusual," says Heyward, in the way someone might tell a girl how lovely she looks in glasses, really.
Not that unusual, I think: Like any other red-blooded American kids, Sarah and Noah also watch plenty of cartoons, though they may spend a little less time in front of the television than most. American children view an average of four hours of television a day, more than they spend on any other single activity except sleep. By high school graduation, they will have put in more hours in front of the tube than in the classroom. They'll also have seen an estimated 200,000 commercials.
Most of what they watch, including prime time, is not children's programming, a cause for concern among people worried about everything from indecency to violence. But plenty of people are also worried about what is produced specifically for children these days: It's almost all cartoons -- many of them, critics charge, little more than hooks for selling the toys they're based on. These shows are sandwiched around what one recent study found was up to 75 percent more advertising than appears on adult prime-time programming.
These concerns are what led Congress last fall to pass the Children's Television Act and to direct the Federal Communications Commission to draw up regulations -- scheduled to be announced this month -- for enforcing it. The thrust of the act is that at least some of what is offered to children on commercial television should be educational, the kind of stuff Andy Heyward is convinced kids don't watch unless they're unusual.
There are people in Washington who have high hopes for the Children's Television Act. But the world in which children's programs are written and produced is far away from the world in which they're regulated. If you want to find out why kids' TV is the way it is -- and whether there's any real chance it will change -- it helps to spend some time in Burbank. 'HASBRO HAS FINAL APPROVAL'
" 'G.I. Joe' has been evolving."
Jonathan Dern, associate producer of the cartoon show named after the popular line of toys, is taking me on a tour. It's off-season in the television production business, and so the art department is almost deserted at DIC (pronounced Deke), which co-produces "G.I. Joe" with Claster Television of Timonium, Md. The folks at DIC don't know what else they've sold for next season, but they do know that "G.I. Joe" will be back for its eighth year. A handful of designers are bent over their drawing boards, sketching the backgrounds, characters and props, all of which will be put together -- along with the "in-betweening" -- by animators in
Korea. Here, they are drawing jungle scenes and commandos while listening to the sweet strains of a violin concerto on the radio.
Increasingly, the characters on "G.I. Joe" look like space cadets. "You still have the military part of it, but they only shoot lasers," Dern points out as we walk. It's been several years since the Joes, as the good guys are known, have been allowed to shoot a human being. They may blow up hundreds of helicopters, but only if there is nobody in them. "There's very little reality-based," says Dern, who is young, wears jeans and sports a diamond stud in his ear.
We pass by a room where a TV set is tuned to Colin Powell conducting a reality-based briefing on the war in the Persian Gulf. Dern moves to an artist's desk and picks up a plastic figure in neon green pants. "These are not your typical soldier," he says, as if distinguishing the toy from the real war going on in the background. Everyone who comes into the art department has been making the same joke, that the fluorescent uniforms would not make good desert camouflage. Dern points out the pants. "Some of the colors that Hasbro has come out with this year -- real bright fluorescents as opposed to camouflage."
Hasbro is the giant toy company that manufactures G.I. Joe, one of the best-selling toy lines of all time. DIC people are sensitive about the issue of violence, but they're even more sensitive about the question of whether the cartoon is just a "program-length commercial" for the toys. It is not just that Hasbro owns Claster Television, which co-produces the show. A fleet of G.I. Joe vehicles that would keep my son happy for a year perches on the shelves above the artists' desks for reference. Along with the drawings, scripts and storyboards, the toys will be shipped to Korea for the animators to use as models.
"A jeep like this is very hard to animate unless you have the toy," Dern says, picking up a gray plastic vehicle with protuberances in every direction. "This does everything. It's got submarines, rockets, don't ask me."
In the last row of desks, an artist hunches over his drafting table. All you can see of him is his back and the Raiders cap he wears backward on his head, as he concentrates on coloring in a drawing of a commando. He is copying from the newly revised Hasbro prototype that sits to his left. "This guy comes with a sword. I'm sure the toy will come with a sword," the artist volunteers, looking up. "That's our fourth version. At first he was all in black and had an Uzi."
"Part of our ninja team, I guess," Dern says.
The management at DIC states absolutely that it does not create story lines to promote specific products. But drawings of characters and props flow back and forth between Hasbro and DIC artists. "We've got 50 new characters," Dern says. "Basically that will be their new toy line. We're creating some of their toy line for them."
Hasbro will approve the DIC artist's rendering. "Hasbro has final approval, or co-approval," Dern says as we finish the tour. "They are involved at basically every step of the way. They are concerned about the image of G.I. Joe."
In seven years, the Joes haven't managed to completely vanquish either the villainous COBRA organization that they battle five days a week or the critics. But at DIC, which began co-producing the show just two years ago, people talk about "repositioning 'G.I. Joe' " in the same way diplomats talk about how Syria is repositioning itself in the Middle East. The landscape of children's television is changing. As in the Middle East, it's not clear yet how much.
Next season, the Joes will be battling toxic vipers. They're for ecology, you see. There will be an episode about literacy -- the Joes are for reading too.
" 'G.I. Joe' has repositioned itself to look at pro-social lessons," explains John Michaeli, corporate spokesman for DIC. The Joes and some of their enemies "will join together to take out a drug dealer."
What does it mean, that they will "take him out?"
"Well," Michaeli answers, "they destroy him."
Michaeli would much rather talk about a different DIC cartoon called "Captain Planet and the Planeteers," originated by CNN founder Ted Turner to promote children's awareness of the environment. With its good guys and bad guys, the show may look something like "G.I. Joe," but each episode contains real information on a topic like acid rain or toxic waste.
Last year, all three networks turned down "Captain Planet" as too "soft." But the series has done surprisingly well its first season in syndication (meaning that it's been sold directly to individual stations). "It has demonstrated that children will watch something educational, which a year ago nobody would believe," Michaeli says.
This year, "educational" makes a better sales pitch. 'THE '80S WERE TERRIBLE'
The reason education sells these days has a lot to do with Peggy Charren, Henry Geller and Donna Lampert.
For 23 years, ever since she founded Action for Children's Television in the living room of her home in the Boston suburbs, Peggy Charren has been shuttling to Washington. She has come to petition the FCC or the Federal Trade Commission, to talk to Congress or to go to court.
When children's television producers and broadcasters talk about their critics, they don't mention the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National PTA, the National Council of Churches or any of the dozens of other groups that have supported legislation to regulate children's television over the years. They usually don't even mention ACT. Instead, they mention Peggy Charren by name, as in: "I have an award from Peggy Charren on my wall over there," or "I heard Peggy Charren likes this show," or "Peggy Charren is a publicity seeker who doesn't give children enough credit."
Charren, equipped with a loud voice, broad gestures and a habit of calling people "sweetheart," has fought a mostly losing battle for two decades. She started trying to get better choices on television for children when her daughter was in kindergarten. Today, she carries pictures of her granddaughter, who is in kindergarten, and acknowledges ruefully that she thinks children's programming is even worse than when she started out. "The '80s," she says, "were terrible."
But it is the '90s now, and Charren is smiling. In October, Congress passed the Children's Television Act. President Reagan had pocket-vetoed a similar act in 1988; but this time President Bush, without signing the measure, allowed it to become law. Its most significant requirement is that stations must meet "the educational and informational needs of children" or risk losing their broadcast licenses when they come up for renewal.
Charren enjoys envisioning the future under this new requirement: "A commu-nity may have a PTA meeting and they have the programming director of a local station come to speak and they say, 'You know, we really don't feel this is enough . . .'
"It's going to be a strange station manager who's going to say, 'Up yours. I think it's legal.' " She laughs. "It's going to be a different world, I think," and she holds out her arms as if embracing it. "I really do think so."
Just how different will depend on the FCC, which, in its most comprehensive look at children's television in more than a decade, now is making rules spelling out just how the requirement will be interpreted. Not unexpectedly, broadcasters (who supported the bill in Congress) are asking for the broadest leeway in determining what meets "the educational and informational needs of children." Charren's Washington lawyers, Henry Geller and Donna Lampert, are arguing on ACT's behalf that stations should provide nonfiction programming -- news, say, or biography -- aimed at specific age groups, and that the FCC should essentially ban program-length commercials.
"What we don't want broadcasters to do is take 'The Flintstones' and 'The Smurfs' and at the end put in a pro- social message about love your mother," Geller says.
Geller and Lampert work in the kind of Washington office building filled with rushing men and women in suits who use their briefcases as weapons in the elevators. In Geller's office, one of two rooms leased from a law firm, his lawyer uniform -- dark pants and a sports jacket -- hangs not on him but on the back of his door, in case he should need to pop over to the FCC just a few blocks away. He stores his black shoes under the couch while he wears running shoes and jeans. His backpack takes up some of the limited floor space.
Geller, 67, served as general counsel to the FCC from 1964 to 1970 and as an assistant secretary of commerce in the Carter administration, heading the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. During the 1970s, the FCC decided that children needed special protection from commercialization.
Accepting the findings of researchers that children under 7, especially, don't understand the difference between programs and commercials, the commission in 1974 set policies limiting how many minutes could be spent on advertising per hour during shows aimed at kids. It required broadcasters to include clear separations between shows and commercials ("After these messages, we'll be right back," for example). The commission prohibited "host selling." Trusted Captain Kangaroo was not allowed to pitch Schwinn bikes because kids could not distinguish between his sales pitch and his admonishment to look both ways before crossing the street.
In the late 1970s another agency, the FTC, went so far as to propose banning commercials aimed at young children, as other countries have done. ACT supported the proposed ban, a stance that drew such widespread opposition it almost put the group out of business. "We've lost that battle," Geller acknowledges. But with the same persistence that makes him stick to his jeans and backpack, he still argues that commercials directed at children under 7 are "inherently deceptive."
Geller's philosophy didn't change, but that of the FCC certainly did. In 1984, under Reagan-appointed FCC Chairman Mark Fowler, the commission deregulated children's television, removing limits on commercial time and, ACT charges, increasingly ignoring violations of such long-standing policies as no host selling. By this time the National Association of Broadcasters code by which the industry had been policing itself had also been knocked down in court as a violation of antitrust laws. In doing away with its own policies, the FCC argued that commercials provide the money to support children's programming, and besides, there was so much competition now in the marketplace that children, like adults, could vote with their remote controls.
By this time, Geller was a self-described "foundation bum," having used Markle Foundation funds to establish the Washington Center for Public Policy Research, affiliated with Duke University, to issue policy papers about a wide range of telecommunications issues. To battle the FCC, he put on his lawyer clothes and went to court and to Congress. Although many broadcasters were continuing to voluntarily abide by the old limits on commercials, ACT presented evidence that some were now showing up to 14 minutes of commercials per hour on kids' shows. This compared with no more than eight minutes an hour on adult prime-time shows. ACT also counted at least 77 toys that had been turned into television shows.
In 1987, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia found that the FCC had "failed to justify" its sudden deregulation of children's television, simply abandoning without adequate explanation its long-standing recognition that "kids are different" and that "market forces do not operate effectively in the children's television realm." Congress agreed that children should no longer be left completely to the mercy of the marketplace.
The 1990 law sets new limits on advertising during children's programs -- 10 1/2 minutes per hour on weekends and 12 on weekdays, slightly more than was permitted before deregulation. It establishes a National Endowment for Children's Educational Television to provide grants to create educational programs. And it directs the FCC to finally decide the issue of program-length commercials. But the section with teeth is the one that for the first time spells out as law that broadcasters must meet children's educational and informational needs.
"What does that say to the commercial broadcaster? 'My God, I can lose my license,' " Geller gloats. "They are worried. After all, they're sitting on something worth $100 million to $300 million."
Sharing in this optimism was Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who played a key role in getting the bill passed. "Children's television should and can be the video equivalent of textbooks and the classics," he said at the time, "rather than the video equivalent of a Toys-R-Us catalogue."
Don't count on it. 'GIVE ME A BOY-DRIVEN VEHICLE'
Think of your child as a demographic.
Noah and I are watching TV. He's seriously into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but at this moment he's bouncing on my bed in excitement over a commercial for toy wrestling figures. He's never heard of Hulk Hogan or seen a wrestling match, except on this commercial, where two figures with bulging plastic biceps are flailing away at each other.
"I want that," Noah says, predictably.
I explain that in reality you have to make their arms move yourself.
"They're punching each other," Noah insists. "See, they show it on TV. So that's right."
In some ways, Noah has more to do with determining what's on TV than the FCC. He's in the age 2-11 group, or "demographic," that children's programs are aimed at on behalf of advertisers who know that they can only reach kids through television.
On the other hand, there's practically no programming aimed at children Noah's specific age -- 5 -- because advertisers are most interested in reaching 6- to 11-year-olds and they know that he will watch shows pitched at older kids. "If there are two children in the house, the older child will generally control what's watched . . . It's easier to have the younger children watch what older children watch," explains Allen Banks, executive vice president of the advertising firm Saatchi and Saatchi, which handles such major kids' TV advertisers as Burger King and General Mills. Almost all kids' programming is cartoons, because they reach the broadest age range, even 17-year-olds. The color and flash can attract Noah, while the dialogue with its jokes about sushi bars and Merv Griffin whizzes over his head like a speeding bullet.
Noah does have going for him the fact that he's a boy. Advertisers believe that while girls will watch shows with male or female heroes, boys watch programs where the heroes are boys. "Boy-driven" shows, as they're called, mean action. Shows aimed at girls are called "soft." "A smart general manager would say, 'Give me a boy-driven vehicle,' " says Kevin O'Brien, chairman of the Fox affiliates governing board. Especially in the afternoon, "boys have a tendency to control the clicker."
These are the demographics producers have in mind when they make shows for kids. "I can almost guarantee I won't be able to sell my soft stuff" to a station, says Fred Wolf, president of an animation company called Murakami Wolf Swenson, if the competing station in town is showing "the real gutsy kind of stuff that appeals more to boys than girls . . . They can't put on my little ivy cottage because it's not going to work against 'Beetlejuice.' "
But then Wolf doesn't have to worry much about selling soft stuff, because his "real gutsy" show, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," is already the most popular children's program on television. ABC and Peter Jennings won a respectable share of the audience when they presented their acclaimed program explaining the gulf crisis to kids, but nationally more than twice as many children were watching "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" at the time.
The turtles are a good example of how children's programming comes about these days. An advertising agency proposed the idea to Wolf, whose small company at that time mostly made animated commercials. The ad agency was representing a property, what Wolf calls a "pretty grim, pretty sinister" comic book aimed at teenagers, featuring four mutant turtles skilled in the martial arts and named after Renaissance painters. Wolf says he and his colleagues decided to make the show friendlier. "We were going for the little people."
What they got was a demographic jackpot: not just 2- to 11-year-olds but 11- to 15-year-olds as well, not to mention a respectable following on some college campuses. The title scared the networks off for a while -- ninja, after all, means assassin. When the British Broadcasting Corp. bought the show, it changed the name to "Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles." The British also took out any frames in which Michaelangelo throws nunchakus, easily imitated weapons made from sticks and a chain. Wolf says he was glad to see them go; in the American version, Michaelangelo still carries the weapons but is no longer permitted to throw them.
"We don't break glass, we don't bop people on the head, and if they're going to hop into a vehicle, they put on a seat belt," he says. The standards and practices department at CBS, which airs the show on Saturdays, recently made animators redraw a scene of Michaelangelo on a skateboard -- to make sure he put a helmet on. But the turtles are also in syndication, running on independent stations during the week. In syndication, Wolf says, "We're realizing we're virtually going to have to censor ourselves."
As an example of this self-censorship, Wolf describes how he modified a "despicable" character named Casey Jones, who was brought into the cartoon at the request of the originators of the comic book. In the first live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie, which came out last year (and was not produced by Wolf's company), Casey Jones is the kind of hero who calls women "babe" and teaches punks a lesson by smashing their faces with hockey sticks. In the cartoon, "We made him a klutz. We kept him contained."
Everyone in the business is looking for the next Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, including Wolf. This year, he got a call from the same advertising agency, now on behalf of a company that makes R-rated cult films noted for their violence, including "Surf Nazis Must Die." Wolf has made five episodes of a campy cartoon based on one of these films, "The Toxic Avenger." The cartoon is called "Toxic Crusaders" -- the story of a nerdy janitor who is tricked into donning a tutu and then falls into a bucket of toxic waste, emerging as a "hideously deformed creature of superhuman size and strength."
"I have to sell what's sensational about the show, then hold the reins on it and protect the kids," Wolf says. "We have a lot of power, but it's a mistake to believe that power can be translated from the entertainment world to a message." Lots of people, he points out, have made cartoons from "the classics . . . Peter Rabbit. Children respond to them at a low, quiet level. There's no dynamics to those shows."
He can't get financing for those "quiet sells," Wolf complains. "The competition is fierce out there." 'IF THERE'S NO TOY, IT'S A FAILURE' At least for next year, the producers say, no one is beating down their doors demanding that they make educational programming. New regulations may be looming, but for now, it's pretty much the marketplace as usual.
Andy Heyward, who took over DIC Enterprises in a leveraged buyout from its European owners four years ago, knows as much as anyone about the demands of that marketplace. The day I see him, he has spent the morning at one of the networks, trying to peddle new shows for the fall season. A network executive has refused to buy a cartoon concept based on an R-rated movie, explaining that though it might be very commercial, parents might automatically reject the animated show because of the movie's rating. Heyward knows he can probably sell the idea in syndication.
" 'Robocop' came from an R-rated movie -- that couldn't be done on network television. 'Rambo' -- that would not fly on network television," he says, listing some animated programs that have shown in syndication.
In the past decade, the children's television industry -- or kidvid, as the trade papers call it -- has gone from a small, cozy world based on Saturday mornings on the three major networks to all-out war. Once, "there were three people splitting 100 percent of the pie," Heyward says. Then, hundreds of independent stations began airing shows for kids on weekdays before and after school. Disney has rushed to provide a big chunk of this programming, and Fox Children's Network teamed with Warner Bros. to compete in what the trade papers have dubbed the Cartoon Wars.
Besides the explosion in independent stations and the creation of Fox Broadcasting as a fourth network, 60 percent of American homes are now wired for cable, which offers such children's channels as Nickelodeon. Home video and even video games compete for the same kids' attention. Broadcasting, a trade magazine, estimated the children's programming market last year to be worth more than $360 million, with the big three networks representing a small and shrinking piece of the pie. "There are 15 or 16 choices for kids," Heyward says. "This has affected the dynamics of the kids business."
In kidvid, where everything (and arguably everyone) is driven, shows are described as being toy-driven or story-driven, action-driven or message-driven, but right now, says Heyward, they are mainly property-driven. "There's been a switch to the high-concept property," he explains. With cartoons costing $250,000 to $300,000 an episode to produce and all that competition, he finds it hard to interest a network or syndicator in financing anything not based on known characters.
In recent years cartoons have been based not just on R-rated movies or cult comic books, but on a candy, on greeting cards, on video games and, of course, on toys. One was even based on a commercial -- the "California Raisins." ("If the network felt that a Nike tennis shoe could make it as a character, I'm sure we'd do it," DIC spokesman Michaeli told me at one point.)
While this trend toward property-driven shows frustrates Heyward as a producer with his own ideas, it doesn't trouble him as a parent. He has two children, and they're allowed to watch all the television they want. He noticed that they watched "Sesame Street" until they were 3. "Then they were out of it." After that, he argues, "they're just too sophisticated. The gentler type of program -- they don't choose those shows. You look at the highest-rated show on public television and it's lower than the lowest-rated shows commercial television delivers."
DIC tried a show three years ago that was not property driven. "Zoobilee Zoo" was developed with educational consultants to foster creativity and a sense of discovery in very young children. When kids didn't tune in during its first weeks on the air, Heyward says, "we lost all our good time periods. Once that happens, you're dead." He frowns as if remembering the funeral. The company sold "Zoobilee Zoo" to public television.
In kidvid, death can be close to instantaneous. It's a fourth-quarter business -- more than 60 percent of the money is earned in the pre-holiday season, when advertisers are charged the highest rates. The television season doesn't start till September, so "it's very important the show comes out of the box very strong," Heyward says. "Shows that are high concept, have marquee value, are presold, will get sampled immediately." This has increasingly led to "working synergistically with advertisers."
What does that mean? "The success of 'Ninja Turtles' was not solely due to the creative merits," he explains patiently. "There was a five-part miniseries, a toy line, a Burger King video promotion, the movie and the TV show. By the time it came to CBS there was no segment of the kids' market not exposed. It's necessary to have that breakthrough exposure to pull it out of the pack."
After that, "the only way you keep it alive is adding a toy line." A whole line of plastic Captain Planet toys will be packaged in recyclable cardboard. Heyward continues the lesson, eyeing me from behind his pink frames. "If there's no toy, you can be assured it's a failure. That's the society we live in." 'WE TREAT OUR KIDS JUST AS ANOTHER MARKET ' "You gotta stop it at some point."
Donna Lampert says this as she rummages through the stacks of papers spilling off her desk and out of her bookcase, many of them petitions she has filed with the FCC on behalf of Action for Children's Television. Somewhere here is a document sent to ACT in 1987 by a disgruntled animator in Los Angeles, a man they jokingly call their Deep Throat because he would call them from a phone booth and never reveal his name.
The document, which she finds attached to an old petition, consists of letters from a Tonka Corp. executive approving scripts for the animated show "The Spiral Zone," which was based on Tonka toys. "Scene 160," one letter reads. "As Bandit fires the Shark Missiler, will we be able to see its barrel expand, as the toy does?"
The question of when a show with a toy line is programming and when it is just a program-length commercial clearly strikes home with Lampert. She has two children, and, she admits resignedly, "I think we own about 60 of these He-Man dolls, all the dolls they've ever made." When she graduated near the top of her law school class at UCLA in 1982, she worked briefly for the entertainment industry and hated it. "Washington looked honest after L.A.," she says with a laugh.
When the FCC did away with commercial limits on children's programming in 1984, it no longer had to deal with the issue of what was a commercial. Now it has been ordered to do just that by both the court and Congress. Meanwhile, the number of toy-based shows exploded following the success of Mattel's "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" in the early 1980s. Licensed merchandise sales -- of everything from Big Bird lunch boxes to Batman pajamas to Transformers toys to NFL team shirts -- jumped from $26.7 billion in 1983 to $64.6 billion by 1989.
Syndicated cartoons are commonly offered to stations on a barter basis, so that instead of paying much, the station gives the syndicator some of its advertising spots. Shows financed by toy companies have a special advantage when it comes to getting on the air in prized time slots, since these same companies are major advertisers. "Kids' programming is still driven by the people who buy the commercials," a station manager complained to me, requesting anonymity so as not to alienate his advertisers. "Whether it's tacit or explicit, you're dealing on two levels -- and on one level is a very big client of yours."
Lampert has assembled new evidence on how interwoven the product promotion is in kids' cartoons. She got a lot of it from a book called Children's Television, written by Cy Schneider, an advertising executive who handled the Mattel account for many years before serving as the first head of the Nickelodeon channel. Writing to advise students of marketing how to bypass parents and reach children through TV, Schneider described how advertisers discovered they could "first design the character as a product, then write a television show starring this character, thereby reversing the traditional process."
Shows, Schneider explained, "now contain numerous characters for the obvious reason that this creates multiple purchases by the consumer, rather than a single purchase of a single popular character. In addition, these shows include many more gadgets, gimmicks, hardware and vehicles -- the stuff of which kids' products are made."
The increasing number of aliens and robots, Schneider wrote, came about because such characters "translate into toy products more easily than do human characters."
Kidvid producers acknowledge that there was an overabundance of such shows in the late 1980s, but point out that the television landscape is littered with the corpses of programs and toy lines like Rambo and Laser Tag. "There was a certain period when toy companies were overbearing," says Robby London, who wrote the pilot for "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" at Filmation before becoming DIC's creative director. "There was a huge glut of these toy-based shows on the heels of 'He-Man.' " Because many of these flopped, he says, "the toy companies have matured in their attitude about this."
London argues that programs should be judged on their creative merit, not on whether the toy came first. "I personally find it a very false distinction. Once they get on the air, they both drive merchandise." Right now, he is producing several shows based on Nintendo video games, including Super Mario Brothers. It's been a challenge. "We fleshed out Mario and Luigi and gave them a funny way with each other, like the Honeymooners or something." When episodes were set in places like the Old West, "we took the genres and Nintendoized them, because the audience wants to see certain connections to the game they know."
"The literature of kids today is not books," London says. The biggest change in the cartoon world, he argues, is in the audience. "There's the belief kids like hipper, edgier, more irreverent stuff. Cartoons today as opposed to 10 years ago -- I think you'll find more sophistication. There's hipness and irreverence and, this might be a sad note, a lack of sweetness."
"We treat our kids just as another market, not as a special group that needs nurturing," Donna Lampert fumes. "Remember, we're the society where they're killing each other for their jackets."
Lampert's argument to the FCC is "let the show have some independent value." One measure, she suggests in a recent document submitted to the commission, is to require that the program exist for two years before the product or the product for two years before the program. "If a show can make it for two years, then it's got to have some independent value."
This kind of regulation would allow shows like "Sesame Street," produced by Children's Television Workshop, to keep Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on the toy racks. Usually seen as the chief good guy of kidvid, CTW has licensed about 2,800 products to date. As a congressional staffer who was involved in the legislation admits, "Even those of us who want to do something about program-length commercials really haven't figured out what is the right thing to do. No one wants to catch 'Sesame Street' or 'Bugs Bunny.' " Lampert acknowledges that defining when a program is primarily a commercial is difficult. Henry Geller, she notes, likes to say that a program-length commercial is like pornography: He knows it when he sees it.
The FCC knew it when it saw it in 1969, when Mattel made the first toy-based cartoon, "Hot Wheels." A competing toy manufacturer petitioned the commission, which expressed enough concern that Mattel and ABC took the show off the air. It was a decade before anyone tried a similar program -- "Strawberry Shortcake." By the time ACT submitted a similar petition to get "He-Man" off the air in 1983, the by-now anti-regulatory commission ruled the show was allowable.
Lampert doesn't think it's likely the FCC will change that approach now. "There may not be much chance of doing something on existing programs." But, she says, "I think the way they're headed is even worse . . . Anything that's a product can be given a personality and be promoted." She rummages through her desk and finds another petition. ACT has asked the FCC to stop a syndicated show called "Video Power" from allowing its 14-year-old host to slip in "informercials," as they're called by the show's producer. These are plugs for video games that are spliced seamlessly into the show, neatly overcoming the problem that kids' attention might wander during commercials.
"That's sick, isn't it -- when a kid doesn't even know he's being sold to," Lampert says. She eyes the mountain of paperwork. "Clearly it's not over." No doubt, Henry Geller will be putting on his lawyer clothes and going to court again.
"Whatever happens to program-length commercials, wouldn't it be nice if there was something else to turn to at 3:30 after they've done their homework?" Lampert asks. 'ROMPER ROOM' MEETS 'JAMES BOND JR.'
In the past few years, academic researchers have shifted their attention from what television does to children to what it could do for them. Most of what children watch is in prime time and was not made for them. The children who watch the most television are low-income -- the least likely to have access to cable or home video. Studies show that such children have benefited significantly from "Sesame Street," one of the few educational programs on the air.
The hope of those who supported the Children's Television Act is that it will force stations to give kids more choice or face the wrath of parents, teachers, pediatricians, librarians or anyone else in a community willing to take on the bureaucracy at license renewal time. The bill specifies that stations may be able to prove they meet children's educational and informational needs in other ways than through their own programming -- by donating money to public broadcasting, for example.
"Broadcasters reluctantly supported this bill," says Kevin O'Brien, general manager of Fox's KTVU in Oakland and until recently head of the Fox affiliates' children's oversight committee. O'Brien calls the licensing renewal provision a "real slap in the face to broadcasting," but insists, "I'm not worried at all about the guillotine that hangs over our head." He trusts the current FCC. "If a Nicholas Johnson type who hates television came in," he says, referring to a former FCC commissioner not much loved in the industry, "that part of the bill could be used as a weapon against us."
But O'Brien goes on to forecast that with fewer commercials there will be less money to produce children's programming. "Over the next 10 years I think this bill is going to do a lot to reduce the quality of what children watch. I think Peggy Charren has done a lot to damage the very people she thought she was protecting . . . The kids are going to be driven over to watch MTV."
Peggy Charren, of course, is envisioning something quite different: "It is going to help the people who have something to say not just to sell."
Take Claster Television, for example. Claster began in 1949 in a Baltimore suburb during a sweeter, slower era in children's entertainment, when cartoons were more commonly based on rabbits than robots and most of them went about unarmed. On local stations, live people talked directly to children, people like Miss Nancy, a preschool teacher who hosted "Romper Room" for 17 years on WMAR in Baltimore.
Miss Nancy's husband, Bert Claster, sold "Romper Room" franchises around the country and eventually around the world. Miss Nancy coached some of the other teachers and scripted many of the episodes. The formats were developed in conjunction with various colleges.
In 1969, Claster Television was bought by Hasbro Inc. Today Claster is headed by John Claster, Bert and Nancy's son, who, along with the rest of the industry, spent much of the 1980s turning out animated shows based on toys like Transformers and G.I. Joe. John Claster defends both shows as good television. "The morals taught in 'G.I. Joe' are terrific," he says. Next season, Claster will syndicate a cartoon called "James Bond Jr." (Hasbro toy line in the works) and another called "Bucky O'Hare," about a weapon-toting space rabbit (Hasbro toy line in the works).
But the company has also discovered renewed interest in "Romper Room," which in recent years appeared in only about five markets. "When the legislation passed, we picked up a significant number of stations," Claster says, noting that the show has now been sold in 42 cities, including Washington. "Until this recent bill, there definitely was less educational television on."
Or, take WTTG, Fox's Channel 5 in Washington, which has begun producing a weekly show called "Not Just News," a program for children age 6 to 11 that will discuss everything from current events to how a microwave oven works. WTTG will offer "Not Just News" to other stations nationwide. "We hope other stations will say here's the show I need to comply with that law," says station manager Tom Herwitz.
"This show is a direct result of the act," Herwitz adds. "The fact that we can go out and sell it and Peggy Charren says nice things about it makes all the difference in the world . . . She said if you don't have the right show, I'm going to come after you. That should scare people."
As for Peggy Charren, she's compiling packets to send out to groups that supported the Children's Television Act, everyone from the United Steelworkers of America to the American Federation of Teachers. Included in the information is a list of when each station in the country comes up for license renewal.
How much can the landscape of children's television really be expected to change? One indication might be that the same week the act became law, NBC announced that it had hired a new head of children's programming.
He had last worked as a vice president of Hasbro Inc.
Susan Cohen teaches journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.