If you want a sneak preview of children's television shows for 1986, do not delve into the imagination of the young, the dreams of the screenwriters or, heaven forfend, the hopes of the educators. Check out the annual toy fair.
At the huge marketing zoo in New York this week, there is a menagerie of new toy creatures bearing names like GoBots, Bumblions, Thundercats and She-Ra. Each one of them is going to debut on television as well as the toy shelves. They will soon join the ranks of kiddie toy stars like Masters of the Universe, Care Bears, Transformers and He-Man.
In today's world, a "big toy" comes equipped with a TV series as if it were a battery. The manufacturers at the toy fair boast openly about television "backup" and "support" for their new line. But they aren't just talking about 30-second television ads anymore. They are talking about 30-minute televison ads.
Since 1983, when TV first began to air programs that were built on toys, the whole thing has escalated shamelessly. By next fall, it's likely that 20 of the Saturday morning shows, not to mention assorted mini-series, will be camouflaged, program-length commercials. Soon any product that doesn't have it's own kid-vid promotion will have to be labeled: Cartoon Not Included.
The trend gives new meaning to the expression "commercial television." In the good old days, we used to worry about television ads directed at kids. Now, kids' television is an ad. The pitch is about as subtle as the remarks by Raymond McDonald, vice president of marketing for the Tonka Corporation: "You have to figure out how to capture a child's mind. They have to know just how to think about the product."
Tonka's notion of consumer education would never be tolerated in adult TV. Imagine a weekly adventure show in which things go better with Coke. Imagine a sitcom in which every shot of the heroine focuses on her Calvin Klein label. Imagine if every beer in "Cheers" were a Budweiser.
"Would they be willing to turn all of television into a Sears Roebuck catalogue?" asks Peggy Charren, head of Action for Children's Television (ACT). "The difference is that adults will recognize they are being sold a bill of goods. Children won't."
ACT filed a suit with the Federal Communications Commission about made-for-toys TV. Their point was that young kids have enough trouble distinguishing commercials from programs. The commission had agreed earlier that "basic fairness requires that at least a clear separation be maintained. . . ." Kids deserve more protection than adults, not less. Furthermore, if these shows are really just ads, ACT maintains that the stations aren't fulfilling their public-interest obligation to children's programming.
These shows are not, by the way, any crummier than the rest of the Saturday morning lineup. As Charren says, "They don't cut up grandma and put her in the trunk." But they pervert the whole concept of programming into packaging. As Charren puts it, "The advertisers in newspapers could write very nice articles for the paper which I might enjoy reading, but that's not what a newspaper is supposed to do." There's a difference between editorial programming and vested-interest programming.
Just how vested an interest is kids' television now? Telepictures, which makes Thundercats, has offered to give the stations a piece of the profits from the sale of the toy. This cozy marketing notion is also at the FCC for rule-making.
The FCC has promised to respond to the whole issue this spring. Even in the commission's current mode -- pro- business, anti-regulation -- they should see something suspect in this two- team pursuit of the most gullible of viewers. It's too easy, rather like selling candy to a baby.
That, by the way, is next on the kid- vid lineup. The first TV show to be created on the candy counter is now in production. It's "Gummi Bears," and it's modeled after little sticky candies. In the show, the candies are cartoon bears who idealistically fight all sorts of evil in the world -- except cavities. Each episode comes equipped with a very sweet ending for the advertiser.