TV for Children

CLARENCE PAGE

December 01, 1992|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON — Washington.--No wonder Vice President Quayle wears the scorn of the cultural elite like a badge of honor. Yes, now that he also has felt the scorn of America's voters, let us give young Danforth his due.

Sure, Mr. Quayle sometimes sounded pretty silly, but his remarks always resonated with at least a kernel of truth. In fact, he flattered the poobahs of American television by calling the culture they put on an ''elite.''

This elite is trying to put a high-brow gloss on some pretty low-brow stuff, judging from a recently released survey by a coalition of consumer groups looking at what 58 stations filed with the FCC as ''educational and informational'' programming for children.

One Ohio television station had listed an episode of ''Donahue'' on ''Teen-age Strippers and their Liberal Moms.'' Several other stations claimed ''The Jetsons'' because it allegedly teaches children about life in the 21st century. Another broadcaster claimed a ''Chip 'n' Dale'' cartoon show episode because it showed the rewards of team efforts. Another praised a ''Leave It to Beaver'' episode for showing youngsters the value of ''communication and trust.''

Are TV programmers trying to pull a fast one? That's pretty much what the Washington-based Center for Media Education, working with other consumer groups and researchers at Georgetown University Law School, concluded after turning up these examples and others the 58 stations filed to comply with a 1990 law aimed at upgrading the quality of children's television.

Peggy Charren reached the same conclusion. She is founder of the 20,000-member Action for Children's Television, a leader among watchdog groups that prodded Congress to pass the law.

The networks argue back with a time-tested chestnut: You can't legislate morality. ''Who's to say what's appropriate for our young?'' Newsweek quoted Judy Price, head of children's programming at CBS, as saying. ''How can you have rules about something that subjective? And, with all respect to Peggy Charren, who elected her to represent the values of this nation's parents?''

Still, Ms. Charren made a good point in a telephone interview with me when she pointed out that a red flag should go up at the FCC or in the minds of parents when a station claims a show like the ''Donahue'' episode even though it was broadcast at 9 a.m. on a school day.

''Or did they presume the topic of teen strippers was important enough for children to skip school to see?'' said Ms. Charren. Good question.

It was Carter-Reagan-era deregulation that aided networks in substituting pap for quality kids' shows like ''Captain Kangaroo,'' ''30 Minutes'' and ''In the Know.'' The industry and free-market theorists like to claim the marketplace, with its abundance of new technologies like cable TV, provides enough alternatives to make unnecessary such governmental intrusions as federal mandating of children's programming and taxpayer subsidies of public broadcasting.

But if stations are going to call entertainment shows ''educational,'' the market is obviously and stubbornly reluctant to do the right thing without public prodding. Since cable is missing from half of America's homes and an even greater percentage of poor households, where children presumably could use helpful lessons the most, deregulation may give us a phase Ms. Charren describes as ''the rich getting a richer information base and the poor getting poorer offerings than the poor ones they have now.''

As viewership of the three major networks has shrunk because of competition, children have been increasingly pandered to as little consumers, not young minds to be properly educated. Is that TV's job? Interestingly, TV programmers have always tried to claim the best of two uncomfortably contradictory worlds, as Hollywood critic Michael Medved puts it.

To television's critics (and who among us is not one?), the moguls claim that what they put on the air has absolutely, positively no negative impact on young viewers. None. But, at the same time, they claim to their advertisers that 30 seconds of commercial time will change the buying habits of millions. What magic, one might reasonably ask, do the commercials have that the surrounding programs don't?

Those of us who, as parents, have seen our own flesh-and-blood learning their first words and, for that matter, consumer buying habits more quickly from television than from us need to ask ourselves what kind of lessons is television teaching.

Once the election was over, victor Bill Clinton also was moved to remark that he and his wife, Hillary, were increasingly dismayed by how little programmers of television seemed to care about using their mighty medium to uplift the spirits of Americans.

Perhaps as devoted advocates of children's rights, Bill and Hillary might put some political clout behind those words. But they can't do it alone. The public owns the airwaves. The networks are tenants. Good tenants need good landlords.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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