All Commentary
Tuesday, January 1, 1991

Childrens Television Shouldnt Be Regulated

Mr. Harris is studying political science at Auburn University.

There is a familiar cry in Washington these days: “Save the children!” No, it isn’t another call for foreign aid to save the starving children of Ethiopia. This time the children in danger are Americans, and the danger isn’t starvation, but the state of children’s television.

The complaints are nothing new. Peggy Char-ren, president of Action for Children’s Television (ACT), and her group of “concerned parents” have been at it for some time. Their latest campaign has been in support of legislation that reduces the amount of commercial time during children’s programming. The legislation, which became law in October, also threatens any broadcaster who doesn’t meet the “educational needs” of younger viewers with having his broadcast license revoked by the Federal Communications Commission.

Exactly what, according to ACT, is wrong with children’s television? Well, it seems that most of what children watch is “just dumb.” Furthermore, children must be protected from “over-commercialization,” particularly when it comes to programs which are themselves commercials for a product.

While ACT’s complaints may seem well-founded at first, they don’t stand up to scrutiny. In the first place, children generally aren’t interested in educational programming. They watch “dumb” shows to be entertained. After all, why should children be any different from adults, who scorn “quality” television in favor of sitcoms and soap operas? Every day there is more evidence that the viewing habits of children are similar to those of adults. Game shows, long a staple of adult television, are now appearing as children’s programming. One example is the immensely popular game show, “Double Dare.” Ms. Charren says that broadcasters should be ashamed of their programs. But there is no shame in providing consumers with shows they want.

Consider, for example, the cartoon “G.I. Joe.” “G.I. Joe” was under constant attack for being too violent, mindless, and for being a “program-length commercial” for a brand of “war toys.” Critics, however, totally missed the program’s good points. In the program’s early days, the stories and animation were of very high quality. Story lines were innovative and were written by some of the best writers in the industry, including the highly respected comic book author Marv Wolfman. One story in particular dealt with the children of Vietnam veterans who grew up in Vietnam without fathers and who were outcasts in Vietnamese society. Such programs may not teach children their A B C’s, but who can claim that they are not “quality”?

However, when the story and animation quality of “G.I. Joe” began to decline, so did the show’s ratings. The “program-length commercial” disappeared from the airwaves even as the toys it was “selling” continued to dominate the market. Quite simply, children tuned in to be entertained. When the fun stopped, they tuned out.

As for “over-commercialization,” Ms. Charren and her associates act as if it were a crime for advertisers to aim commercials at their intended audience. It is the advertiser’s job to target ads toward children. It would be silly to run advertisements aimed at senior citizens during “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.” The only people not doing their job are the parents. Their job is to just say “no.”

Here is the root of the children’s television “crisis.” Parents either cannot or will not take responsibility for their children. Parents want the government to step in with controls and regulations so that they won’t be put in the position of saying “no” to their children. The fewer commercials children see, the less parents will need to say “no.” The less “junk” on television, the less often parents will need to change the channel or turn the TV off. Parents just don’t want the hassle of crying children.

The problem goes far beyond children’s television. In every walk of life, parents want government to take the responsibility out of parenting. But who ever said that parenting would be easy?

Children shouldn’t be deprived of entertainment just because they are young. It is far better to let the ratings figures determine what goes on television than any small group of individuals, no matter how “concerned” they are.