The Children's Hour


October 05, 1990|By Richard Reeves

WASHINGTON. — THE SENATE and the House have both passed and sent to President Bush a worthwhile piece of legislation that would regulate the number of toy and sugar commercials that can be injected into each half-hour of children's television programs. Mr. Bush, I assume, will veto it with some smarmy words about the rights of young people.

The legislation is hardly the work of do-gooders and other crazed anti-business radicals. It would keep the commercial content ''down'' to 10 1/2 minutes of each 30 minutes of cartoons on weekends and ''down'' to 12 minutes during the week.

The limit was 9 1/2 minutes before Ronald Reagan became president and deregulated the government to get it off our children's backs. Now some stations are running 12 minutes on weekends and more on weekdays. And some of that is in cunning little programs that are actually commercials from beginning to end. We interrupt this half-hour cartoon commercial for Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtle products to bring you a 30-second commercial from the sugar industry.

I watch these things with a certain horrified fascination, the way the people of Pompeii must have watched Mount Vesuvius until the local volcano turned them into statues. The reason, of course, is that I have a 5-year-old daughter, a first-grader. Her television-watching is restricted to far below the national average -- to deprive her totally would isolate her from friends and classmates -- but she does love the cartoons and respects the commercials.

''How do you know that, Fiona?'' her father asks. Or: ''Why do you think that's true?''

''I know it's true, Daddy!'' There is great emphasis on the word ''know.'' Why? ''I saw it on a commercial.''

Smart kid. She knows the important part of what she's seeing. I watched with her for as long as I could stand it one Saturday this summer. The advertisers seemed to have been selected by starving dentists: Kool-Aid, Golden Grahams, Cocoa Puffs, Keebler Cookies, Cap'n Crunch, Froot Loops, Super Golden Crisps, Cocoa Pebbles, Hi-C, Gummi Bears -- and a public-service announcement for the Damon Runyon-Walter Winchell Cancer Fund. The Gummi Bears, by the way, have their own show.

''How do you know the difference between the commercials and the shows?'' I asked.

''The ones that stay on longer are the shows,'' she said. I told you, she's smart.

So, as a parent, I hope the president signs the Children's Television Act of 1990. It won't hurt. But the cartoons and sugarheads are only part of the problem, a small part. The problem for parents is non-children's television, the programming and commercials aimed at adults.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest surveyed 180 boys and girls, all between the ages of 8 and 12, and found that they knew the names of more beers than presidents of the United States. One 10-year-old girl could name only four presidents but knew the brand names of 14 beers and wine coolers. They think the president's name is spelled ''Busch.'' Bad stuff. But that's not the worst.

It is television news that is the worst, with local news being the bottom, the pits. It's like taking your kid to the killing fields night after night. That's the programming we forbid Fiona to watch.

I suppose New York, where we spend a good deal of time, is worse than most places. Hour after hour, beginning in the late afternoon, it is: Hate! Hate! Hate! . . . Guns! Guns! Guns! . . . Kill! Kill! Kill! . . . Blood! Blood! Blood!

You'd have to be crazy to let your kids near this stuff. In fact, it makes me crazy to look at it. It is not a president or any bunch of politicians that is spreading America's electronic poison; it's my own business doing it to my own kids.

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