Guess What Time It Is

By Jeff Yanc

GUESS WHAT TIME IT IS: If the names Fleegel, Bingo, Drooper and Snorky don't mean anything to you, chances are you didn't grow up watching Saturday morning TV in the 1970s. Luckily, the authors of the new book, Saturday Morning Fever: Growing Up With Cartoon Culture, not only survived the '70s kid-vid experience, they also have an encyclopedic memory of every Wonder Twin, Sleestak and Herculoid that ever mesmerized a generation of young boob tubers.

Media Mix Timothy and Kevin Burke have fashioned an entertaining history of Saturday morning programming that examines not only the shows themselves, but also the industrial conditions that gave rise to what we now know as children's television.

The Burkes position the '70s as the "Golden Age of Kid-Vid," detailing how by that decade, children's programming had been around long enough to have attracted the concerned attention of various special interest groups, and was being watched by an unprecedented number of divorce-generation latchkey kids. Little did Count Chocula-buzzed TV junkies know that their cherished cartoon world was also a vicious battleground where greedy toy advertisers, network hacks, cut-throat cartoon companies, opportunistic politicians and concerned parents struggled for the souls of American youth.

Consumer watchdog groups like ACT arose in the late '60s, claiming that kids' TV was too violent, and that impressionable children should not be targeted by advertisers via entertainment programs. The FCC responded to the hoopla by regulating the number of commercials that could appear in kids' programming and forcing stations to include several hours worth of "educational" kids' shows per week. At the same time, kid-vid production companies like Hanna-Barbara gnashed their teeth and tried to concoct cheap, nonviolent program formulas that would appease both parents and advertisers.

By the 1980s, as the Reagan Administration pushed for deregulation, the commercialization of kids' TV had begun to run rampant, with trite toy-fueled shows like Strawberry Shortcake barely bothering to distinguish their storylines from the commercials that surrounded them. While innovative programs like Pee Wee's Playhouse occasionally managed to sneak through the glut of mindless toy-programs, they were the exception to the rule.

As parent groups like ACT disbanded in the late '80s, self-serving "family values" politicians swooped in to condemn kid-vid for their own political gain.

With the cable and satellite TV explosion of the last decade, cartoons are more numerous than ever. Network upstarts like Fox and Nickelodeon breathed new life into the flaccid carcass of kid-vid by letting auteur cartoonists, rather than corporate think-tanks, create shows like Ren and Stimpy, Eeek! The Cat and The Tick. While the '90s have generally seen an upswing in quality kid-vid, the cartoon of the moment is the middlebrow corporate phenomenon Rugrats (whose feature film spin-off recently became the first non-Disney cartoon movie to gross more than $100 million domestically). And while official regulations for '90s kid-vid are scarce, chilling developments such as the V-chip and the TV ratings system are now at work to once again dampen any overt subversion in kids' programming.

While children obviously need parental guidance, there's something more than a little hypocritical about a world of adults who revel in vapid consumerism and violent, sexist entertainment telling children such behavior is wrong. Toward the goal of helping kids teach their parents to become more responsible media consumers, consider the following:

  • Parents are very impressionable and may think that all TV is bad. Encourage them to develop critical thinking skills that will help them decide what to watch.

  • Parents are often frightened by TV violence, and they may not understand that vicious space monsters and coyotes falling off cliffs are actually "entertainment" and are not real. Teach them the difference between real and pretend violence.

  • Parents can easily be confused about the difference between TV and reality, thinking that fictional events actually happened. Teach them to turn the channel, or even turn the TV off entirely, if they don't like what they're seeing.

  • Parents often carelessly purchase products for themselves based on TV advertisements. Inform them that computers, utility sports vehicles and beer products may not work as well in life as they do on TV, and that purchasing useless junk will not make them happier people.

  • Repeat to them the title of a popular '70s Saturday morning program--Kids are People, Too.

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