Pediatric Annals

Children's Television: A Conflict of Interests

Peggy Charren

Abstract

Predicting the future is not easy, even for the New York Times. In 1939, a Times reporter covering the introduction of television at the World's Fair, wrote:

"The problem with television is that the people must sit and keep their eyes glued to a screen: the average American family hasn't time for it. Therefore ... for this reason, if no other, television will never be a serious competitor of [radio] broadcasting."

He could not have been more wrong. Today, most Americans spend about 30 hours a week watching television. Although parents worry about the effect of television on their children, they rarely connect television problems to the feet that in most homes, the TV set is on too much of the time . . . seven hours a day, according to Nielsen audience surveys.

The average American child watches television four hours a day. And that's too much television: too much good TV; too much bad TV; too many cartoons; even too much Sesame Street. Children are missing out on other parts of the growing-up process - not just time with books, but time for conversation at the dinner table, and the creative effort that grows out of being bored, and they are learning some strange lessons from that TV screen:

* Peculiar driving habits from "Knight Rider";

* Confusing data about child abuse, terrorism, and kidnapping from the news;

* The idea that sugar is the most important food from children's commercials;

* That violence is a solution to problems;

* And from cable they are learning about sex with violence before they learn about sex with love.

The obvious remedy for too much television is to turn the set oft" more often. Families have to put themselves on a TV diet. They have to learn to watch TV programs instead of merely watching television. For some families, restrictions are particularly difficult. For children home alone after school, TV offers companionship and comfort.

As Robert Coles said, "the television screen, with its banalities and flights of preposterous or meanspirited fancy, ends up being one of the more reassuring elements in a particular set of circumstances: something there and relatively reliable, lively, giving."1

Most of us can pay a little more attention to our children's time with television. The "Tender Loving Care" that pediatricians have long recommended to parents must now include a TV "TLC": T for talk about TV with your children, L for Jook at it with them as often as you can, and C for choose with them what to turn off and what to watch.

What to watch! Parents trying to deal with television have discovered that it is not so easy to find nutritional food for thought in the fare served to children by the television industry. Television has the power to enhance the education of children. Why is it that, with the exception of public broadcasting, we use this power so rarely? Why is local children's programming an endangered species? Why is Monday through Friday on commercial network affiliates a wasteland for children?

Commercial TV ignores children because they do not have financial clout. It is difficult to justify large expenditures to influence them to act for the benefit of any advertisers except toy makers or food companies. Even with sponsors lined up, few children's shows reach the screen because they interrupt the flow of adult audiences for daytime soap operas or news. Public broadcasting has trouble finding underwriters for children's shows, because young people do not care who made the program possible, and corporations want to shore up their image with investors and…

Predicting the future is not easy, even for the New York Times. In 1939, a Times reporter covering the introduction of television at the World's Fair, wrote:

"The problem with television is that the people must sit and keep their eyes glued to a screen: the average American family hasn't time for it. Therefore ... for this reason, if no other, television will never be a serious competitor of [radio] broadcasting."

He could not have been more wrong. Today, most Americans spend about 30 hours a week watching television. Although parents worry about the effect of television on their children, they rarely connect television problems to the feet that in most homes, the TV set is on too much of the time . . . seven hours a day, according to Nielsen audience surveys.

The average American child watches television four hours a day. And that's too much television: too much good TV; too much bad TV; too many cartoons; even too much Sesame Street. Children are missing out on other parts of the growing-up process - not just time with books, but time for conversation at the dinner table, and the creative effort that grows out of being bored, and they are learning some strange lessons from that TV screen:

* Peculiar driving habits from "Knight Rider";

* Confusing data about child abuse, terrorism, and kidnapping from the news;

* The idea that sugar is the most important food from children's commercials;

* That violence is a solution to problems;

* And from cable they are learning about sex with violence before they learn about sex with love.

The obvious remedy for too much television is to turn the set oft" more often. Families have to put themselves on a TV diet. They have to learn to watch TV programs instead of merely watching television. For some families, restrictions are particularly difficult. For children home alone after school, TV offers companionship and comfort.

As Robert Coles said, "the television screen, with its banalities and flights of preposterous or meanspirited fancy, ends up being one of the more reassuring elements in a particular set of circumstances: something there and relatively reliable, lively, giving."1

Most of us can pay a little more attention to our children's time with television. The "Tender Loving Care" that pediatricians have long recommended to parents must now include a TV "TLC": T for talk about TV with your children, L for Jook at it with them as often as you can, and C for choose with them what to turn off and what to watch.

What to watch! Parents trying to deal with television have discovered that it is not so easy to find nutritional food for thought in the fare served to children by the television industry. Television has the power to enhance the education of children. Why is it that, with the exception of public broadcasting, we use this power so rarely? Why is local children's programming an endangered species? Why is Monday through Friday on commercial network affiliates a wasteland for children?

Commercial TV ignores children because they do not have financial clout. It is difficult to justify large expenditures to influence them to act for the benefit of any advertisers except toy makers or food companies. Even with sponsors lined up, few children's shows reach the screen because they interrupt the flow of adult audiences for daytime soap operas or news. Public broadcasting has trouble finding underwriters for children's shows, because young people do not care who made the program possible, and corporations want to shore up their image with investors and adult consumers, not with children.

Isn't it time for TV executives to look up from bottom line concerns and concentrate on the fact that our children and grandchildren will inherit the world we make? We educate children so that, eventually, they can run that world. We build schools, even for the very youngest. We build children's libraries, filled by a book publishing industry that recognizes the special needs of young people, with separate categories for various ages: picture books, "I Can Read" books, bibliographies, "how-to" books, and novels on the perils of being a teenager.

If there is no market for kid's TV, the best writers and producers will look elsewhere for creative outlets. Whatever initiatives existed through the 1970s are fast disappearing with the Reagan administration's deregulatory acts against diverse television for young people.

Today, a new breed of children's television is replacing the blue-ribbon champions of yesteryear: "Captain Kangaroo," "Kukla, Fran and Ollie," "Bullwinkle." Children's airtime has been taken over by the animated sales pitch. In the past, licensed characters from successful children's shows, from The Mickey Mouse Club to Sesame Street, moved from the small screen to everything from lunch boxes to pillow cases. This kind of licensing was acceptable because the shows themselves were not designed to sell products.

But since 1983, the merchandise itself has taken center stage. Character licensing of all kinds has mushroomed into an estimated $40 billion industry, and children are now being treated to 25-minute commercials interrupted by very short commercials. Toy manufacturers have found that the added notoriety of a TV show ensures the sales of toylines like Masters of the Universe, Strawberry Shortcake, and the Care Bears. Toy companies retain editorial control over these shows.

Hasbro Bradley, promoting its G.I. Joe line of toys in a trade magazine ad, focused on the 90 half-hours in its "G.I. Joe" television series: "Every G.I. Joe figure, every vehicle, every accessory will star in this historic television first! Think of the enormous excitement this series will generate among kids for all G.I. Joe toys. Get ready for the sales impact!"

There are now more than 40 shows that have been developed to sell children a bill of goods including Hasbro Bradley's G.I. Joe, Transformers, Wuzzles, and My Little îbny; Mattel's He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, She-Ra: Princess of Power, and Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors; Kenner's Hugga Bunch, Care Bears, and MASK; Tonka's Go-Bots; and LJN's Thundercats.

Some producers are less than happy with a situation that allows so little creativity to come into play. Bill Scott, the voice of Bullwinkle and the writer and coproducer of "Rocky and His Friends," told Neuisda^, "Putting together a huge, glitzy package involving toys, books, ancillary stuff, and a TV show may be very creative merchandising. But, when the commercial aspects are there before the creative aspects, you aren't going to get star-quality stuff. You're going to get bland, kiddy-culture junk."

Lou Scheimer, of Filmation, admits that his company, which produces "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe," would prefer to make the kind of shows that gamer praise and awards, like "Fat Albert," another Filmation production. But that's not what commercial broadcasters will buy. As Scheimer told "Nightline's" Ted Koppel, "It becomes an impossible task to sell an original concept. So what we are forced to do is find commodities that exist and have some value, some name value, and that becomes a special problem for us.

Industry efforts to turn children's shows into manufacturer's catalogues have also been criticized by newspapers across the country, by magazines from Newsweek to Business Week, and even by the trade press. Electronic Media calls the new Saturday morning season a "merchandising haven," and Advertising Age headlined an editorial on these new practices, "A TV license to steal, from kids."

TV programs based on merchandise - so called "program- length commercials" - are a phenomenon unique to children's television. They fail to clearly distinguish between programming and advertising. These 30-minute commercials can prove deceptive and disappointing as well. The robotic vehicle from outer space purchased at the toy store is unlikely to perform the amazing feats of its animated counterpart on the TV show.

But the subtle, more insidious problem with program-length commercials is that they are displacing other kinds of children's shows in favor of vested interest speech. There are no non-fiction programs based on toys, no live drama, music, magazine shows based on toys. Commercial speech is depriving children of diverse television service and is not consistent with the "public trustee" responsibility written by law into every broadcaster's license to use the public resource known as the broadcast spectrum.

The Federal Communications Commission, the agency charged with the responsibility to represent the public's interest in telecommunications as defined by Congress, has changed, under the Reagan administration, from a federal watchdog to an industry mascot. The FCC is willing to rely on new technologies to serve children, a kind of "Let them eat cable," philosophy of TV life. Alternate delivery systems like cable, home video and roof dishes, do provide more choice for families, but only for those who can afford y'major initial investment or the continuing bills for pay cable channels and videotape.

Ad agencies are taking advantage of Washington's laissez faire attitudes by designing new products and services to sell to children. Already, stations are airing commercials telling children to "dial-a-story" or dial Santa ("call every day 'til Christmas") at up to $2.00 a call. This practice unfairly targets children home alone. Families that cannot manage to hire babysitters surely cannot deal with any unnecessary phone costs.

Ogilvy and Mather, confident that some eight million homes will receive videotex by 1990, has developed a number of products-based adventure programs to be viewed on the two-way videotex system. Programs created for General Foods include "the Honeycomb Kid," "Kool-Aid Man," and "Jello-O Magic." This is a far cry from the kind of education most of us expected new TV technologies to provide for children.

With its new policies, the Reagan FCC has said, "We don't care!" Neither does commercial television. Network public relations cannot hide the fact that TV service to young people in the United States is woefully and regrettably inadequate. There is not a single daily network show for children on ABC, CBS, or NBC, and there is not even a single weekly network show on Monday through Friday. Compare this depressing statistic with the number of daily and weekly programs designed for adults. It is clear that self- regulation by the broadcast- industry will not result in sufficient service to young audiences.

But there is hope on the horizon. There is a national institution that can help to save the day - not Superman or Mighty Mouse - but Congress!

Action for Children's Television (ACT) believes that Congressional representatives and senators will respond to the decline of children's TV by signing on to the Children's Television Education Act of 1985, recently introduced by Representative Timothy Wirth (D-CO) and Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ). This bill would require each station to air seven hours a week (with five of these on Monday through Friday) of programming designed to enhance the education of children. This television education bill will stimulate the market for children's television, and will define the present communications ACT requirement for the nation's TV stations to responsibly serve alt audiences, including young people.

We are not asking the government to make children's television "better" by dictating what should not be on television. The government cannot and should not promulgate content-sensitive rules, even for children. ACT is vehemently opposed to censorship in any form. ACT believes it is the responsibility of parents, not the lawmakers, to keep their children away from adult programs they find inappropriate. But parents cannot guide their children to suitable TV alternatives if those alternatives do not exist.

One broadcasting organization that does care about children is the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Instead of vetoing its funding, which President Reagan did twice last year, or reducing its budget, we should improve the financial condition of this major national resource. However, we should stop ill-conceived efforts to bring commercials to PBS. This short-range, short-sighted idea will undermine the future of public broadcasting.

The trend in recent years has been to criticize all television for children, to call it a plug-in drug. Those of us working to increase diversity disagree. We think of children's television not as a Pandora's box, chock full of trouble and evil curses. Rather, we see kids' TV as an Aladdin's lamp, a source of unexpected good fortune.

EB. White, the author of Charlotte 's Web and other magical children's books, died recently. All of us who care about children and the English language will miss him. He once wrote: "Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, congenial readers on earth. They accept almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly."

He said, "Anybody who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down."

There are plenty of creative people inside the industry who want to "write up, not down" to children. Pediatricians can give them a chance by contacting their own representatives and senators with letters of support for the Children's Television Education Act, HR 3216 in the House and S1594 in the Senate. We may never again have such an opportunity to make a difference in how our TV screens serve children.

REFERENCES

1. Coles R: What harm to the children? Channels, June /July 1981.

10.3928/0090-4481-19851201-05

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