TV Turns off the Young

September 17, 1991

It's Saturday morning and the kids are watching "Garfield," "Teen-age Mutant Ninja Turtles," "Captain Planet" and the new "Hammerman," a weekly animated series hosted by the rapper M. C. Hammer. What these shows have in common, beside third-rate animation and dreadful stories, is that they appeal to boys more than girls. In fact, the entire Saturday morning television lineup has no girl heroes and no show, with the possible exception of the insipid "Muppet Babies," directed at girls.

Television executives have been congratulating themselves in recent seasons for their depictions of forceful, rounded women such as "Murphy Brown," the "Designing Women" and "Roseanne." But while pleasing the feminists, television is ignoring their daughters. A (female) network vice president explained at an industry-sponsored conference on children's television that boys won't watch girl-dominated programs, and that maybe when there is a woman in the White House, television will respond with girl heroes.

It had better respond sooner than that. Saturday-morning ratings are declining, and some networks reportedly have considered dropping children's programming altogether. The dozens of cable channels lure away some of the small viewers. Others find interactive technologies like Nintendo and computer games more challenging than passively staring at "Dragon Warriors" or a deracinated "Winnie the Pooh."

Sprinkling girl heroes into the action fantasies may be a place to start, but television will need more than that to keep children interested. It needs a new approach to children's programming, one that considers what attracts kids, not just what they will sit still for. Reality probably is unreal as a source of programming ideas, but wouldn't children like shows about interesting things youngsters do, such as learning to skateboard or juggle, or turning a cardboard box into a fort?

Network television is probably too short-sighted for such radical thinking. Reality programming would cost a lot more than endless spin-offs of "Alvin and the Chipmunks." And it might inspire kids to turn off the TV and try out some of the skateboarding and fort-building techniques they had just seen.

Television is already yesterday's technology; if it doesn't move to build the viewing habits of its youngest consumers, it may find them too busy when they grow up to care about Murphy Brown and Suzanne Sugarbaker.

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