Before 1968, children's TV received only cursory attention from the Federal Communications Commission. Advertising to children, while growing rapidly, was still in its infancy. The hosts of TV's popular "Romper Room" and "Captain Kangaroo" endorsed products during broadcasts of each show, and the claims made in those endorsements went unchecked. But these practices changed following an informal meeting in the living room of a Massachusetts woman named Peggy Charren.
In January 1968, dismayed by Saturday morning animated programs that featured cartoon violence, hucksterism and irresponsible messages, Ms. Charren and her associates formed Action for Children's Television. The group focused on the Communications Act of 1934, which stipulated that in return for their use of the public airwaves, broadcasters were obligated to serve the public interest. ACT contended that industry practices were placing the needs of advertisers and programmers above the needs of children.
ACT studied "Romper Room" broadcasts for four weeks in spring 1969, surveying advertising and program content. It documented the airing of violent cartoons, program hosts hawking products and child participants selling products.
Armed with that data and the expert testimony of physicians and psychologists, Mr. Charren in 1970 drafted a one-page petition calling on the FCC to require programming for children and eliminate commercials on children's TV. Ms. Charren and two ACT members met with FCC commissioners to discuss the issues, the first time the agency had met with members of the public.
ACT began its rise to prominence that same year when it joined with the Kennedy Memorial Hospital for Children and the Boston University School of Public Communications to host the first National Symposium on Children and Television.
No "little housewife"
Ms. Charren had a witty, acerbic personal style that served her well in Washington. Her straightforward recitation of the wrongs in the network programming mentality tagged her with a Ralph Nader-style reputation--an activist turned interventionist who was not easily deterred. Her typical approach was to charm her opponents with candor and sensible information, belying the dismissive "little housewife" label with which programmers initially tagged her and other ACT members. At a 1969 meeting with CBS network executives in New York, she asked to speak to the network's director of programming. When he arrived, the discussion turned to the network's lack of a director of children's programming; within a week, the network had appointed one.
ACT quickly grew to a national organization with 10,000 members; after its first year, Ms. Charren was the only original member remaining. In 1970, a petition drive inspired thousands of letters supporting ACT's position, which was endorsed by such prestigious professional groups as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Library Association, the Consumers Union and the National Association of Elementary School Principals. Those endorsements positioned ACT and Ms. Charren as formidable defenders of children and, within a decade, major strides were made in the planning, approach and production of children's TV programming.
ACT managed to affect changes in children's programs in the 1970s that included: removal of commercials that presented children's vitamins as candylike products; reduction of commercial time to nine minutes and 30 seconds per hour on weekends and 12 minutes per hour on weekdays; prohibitions against program hosts endorsing or selling products; reduction of frequency of program interruptions; requirement of nutritional messages to balance product announcements; and insertion of five-second separator devices called bumpers before and after commercials to help children distinguish between programs and non-program material.
In 1974, the FCC agreed with ACT's initiatives, turning the ACT requests into a set of guidelines known as the "Children's Television Policy Statement." The statement, viewed as a recommendation rather than a mandate, suggested stations provide a reasonable amount of children's programming, much of it informational and educational.
ACT's efforts in part led to the 1978 Federal Trade Commission recommendation that TV advertising to children be sharply curtailed because it exploited their immaturity. The concept, first formally advocated by ACT, was hailed as visionary.
The Reagan years
In the 1980s, however, the rules began to change, and Ms. Charren charged the administration of President Ronald Reagan with "gutting" past promises of consumer protection.
In 1980, with new appointees in place, the FTC formally dropped its inquiry into children's programming. In 1981, Congress restricted the focus of its own inquiry into children's programming due to intense lobbying efforts by the networks and advertisers.
In 1981, President Reagan appointed Mark Fowler as chairman of the FCC; Mr. Fowler was an attorney who opposed regulation of either advertising or programming. In 1983, the FCC lifted its children's policy guidelines and allowed TV stations to air as many commercials in a given time period as they thought necessary.
That decision unraveled ACT's work of the 1970s, resulting in what came to be called "program-length commercials." At the same time, understanding that the milieu of programmers and networks had changed, the networks canceled much of their educational children's programming (which was expensive to produce) and significantly reduced the number of after-school specials and other shows they aired. ACT turned its focus toward Congress and political action.
Children's Television Act of 1990
Aligning with Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, ACT formed strong coalitions with children's advocacy groups, children's health organizations and other grassroots movements to push its agenda in Congress. Following congressional hearings that included testimony from Mr. Charren, the Democrat-controlled Congress in 1990 passed the Children's Television Act, which established the National Endowment for Children's Educational Television. The act required stations renewing their licenses to demonstrate that they were fulfilling the educational and informational needs of children age 2 to16.
The law, though later admitted to be ill defined in scope and direction, made a philosophical difference at the time. In 1996, a new bill was passed that created core educational programming, with the premise of educating children under clearly stated, age-targeted objectives. Moreover, commercials were given no more than 10.5 minutes per 30 minutes for weekends and 12 minutes for weekdays. From 1990 to 1997, eight of nine Peabody Awards for children's programs were awarded to informational or educational programs, a result of the law's influence on programmers.
With the passage of the Children's Television Act-and a strong legacy of change in the children's programming industry-Ms. Charren shuttered ACT in 1992. She chose the Center for Media Education as the designated successor to ACT based on its mission, which she found closest to that of ACT's initial mandate, and remained involved in its foray into Internet regulatory matters.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton named Ms. Charren to the Presidential Advisory Committee on Public Interest of Digital TV Broadcasters, which opened the Internet chapter of her advocacy story. She believed that online advertising posed two threats to children: tracking of children's online computer activity by advertisers and the solicitation of information from them.
As of 2004, Ms. Charren had remained active on media issues, writing several books and serving on the board of several public interest groups, including the Media Access Project.
Born March 9, 1928; received bachelor of arts from Connecticut College, 1949; founded Action for Children's Television, 1968; named to Task Panel on Public Attitudes and Use of Media for Promotion of Health as part of the President's Commission on Mental Health, 1977; named a visiting scholar at Harvard Graduate School of Education, 1987; awarded Emmy for children's advocacy, 1988; received Peabody Award, 1992; awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1995; named to Presidential Advisory Committee on Public Interest of Digital TV Broadcasters, 1997; received Annenberg Public Policy Center Award for Distinguished Lifetime Contributions to Children & Television, 1998.