July 4, 2013

Not for kids only

Last week, I promised we’d take a look at why children’s programming was so awful. As I pointed out then, the Saturday morning lineup in 1968 was dominated by action-adventure cartoons featuring various forms of superheroes. The discussion points at that time were two: the presence of violence in these cartoons and its affect on young viewers, and what I referred to as the “creative poverty” of the shows themselves.

In the April 21, 1974 edition of TV Guide, Edith Efron takes a look at the continuing controversy. By 1974, some things had changed, but others remained the same. The concerns about quality are still there – FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson has labeled network children’s programming executives as “evil men” and “child molesters,” which goes to show that at least we haven’t lost our talent for name-calling. But the networks, stung by the charges of violent content, responded with changes they hoped would lead to a “Golden Age” of children’s programming. As Efron points out,

They used top TV writers to script non-violent shows, and hired sho0als of educational consultants to tell the writers how to insert “values” and social-conscious themes. . .And in a hideous anticlimax, it was denounced to the skies by other shoals of academics, ACT [Action for Children’s Television, the Sesame Street gang*] and TV critics.

*There have been many unintended consequences as the result of ACT’s involvement in children’s programming. Most of them, from the disappearance of local kids’ shows to the “short attention span theater” of Sesame Street, have been bad. Someday, if I’m in the mood, I might expand on that.

Efron agrees with the critics that the current state of children’s television is “appalling,” calling them

Chaotic, incoherent, purposeless scripts from which dramatic conflicts have been surgically excised, the vacuum filled by laugh tracks; unending self-plagiarism; and socially, racially and sexually stereotyped characters. Variety summed it up accurately as “shrunken adult programming” that was largely “witless, heartless, charmless, tasteless and artless.”

Variety’s critique is quite interesting, for it falls into a pattern of criticism that we’ve seen almost from the beginning of television. It's long been obvious that the viewing habits of adults and children aren't all that different, a point emphasized by Steven Stark in Glued to the Set, as he draws parallels between the two most influential programs in early television - The Milton Berle Show and Howdy Doody. As Stark writes, the eternal debate centers "on whether adults would permit their children to see pretty much the same type of programming that they did, since - given the choice between something educational and something entertaining - it was obvious which one kids would pick. Howdy Doody, Stark says, was "virtually indistinguishable from variety shows like Berle's, whereon the entertainment was always designed to reach the broadest audience possible." Doody, Stark argues, was in fact more successful than Berle, learning from the later's relatively quick rise and fall to incorporate elements, such as a larger supporting cast and ongoing storylines, that kept its young audience enthralled until 1960 - well after Berle had faded from the airwaves.

As Efron tries to answer the question of why kids’ programming is so bad, she talks to the network executives – the “evil men” in charge of programming. From two, NBC’s George Heinemann and ABC’s Michael Eisner, she gets much the same story: networks “strive for excellence in every detail,” that the shows promote healthy values, that criticism of their programming is misguided. Heinemann in particular makes some puerile remarks regarding his review of the storylines and logic for his shows:

“I eliminate all anxiety situations. I cut out all cliff-hangers and threat situations.” And he tells in detail how the writers of one show gave him a script in which bad guys were seeking to harm good guys. “I said: not on your life! I took out all the bad guys. The only bad guy that was left when I finished editing the script was an earthquake!”

As Efron comments, “this elimination of the conflict between good and evil is the perfect formula for gutting dramatic conflict – but Mr. Heinemann doesn’t appear to know it.”

Things change, though, when Efron talks to the third exec, Allen Ducovny of CBS. She remarks that after offering some of the same rote answers as his colleagues at the other networks, “his own rituals bored him, and he decided to say what was really on his mind.”

I have a distinct feeling that we are doing harm to children by removing adventure from their diet – adventure in the true sense. This includes mystery, suspense, jeopardy, and the ultimate is the triumph of the hero. Without giving the hero the kind of situation in which he can overcome the obstacle and triumph, we are depriving the children of a chance to develop a vision of right and wrong, or a struggle to overcome wrong – and that is what life is all about. There’s an enjoyment in seeing a struggle between two people, or two groups, or two ideologies. Life is full of struggles such as that. I feel it’s wrong to protect children from experiencing this.

It’s also futile. Children do see this on other programs. Why shouldn’t they see it on Saturday mornings?

Ducovny cites CBS figures that only 9% of children’s television viewing is done on Saturday morning – the rest of the time, they’re essentially watching the same things adults watch. “Of course prime-time programming is watched heavily by kids. The networks can rationally say that the prime-time programming is very good programming for kids – and for the whole family.”

The result, Efron concludes, is that Saturday morning programming is junk – in responding to the antiviolence campaign, cartoons “lost all purposed and coherence, and filled the conceptual void with canned yoks. The result: programming that was nonviolent but still nauseated many adults who saw it.”

This is a strong indictment not just of children’s programming, but of prime-time programming as well. “It’s not kids’ programming that’s in shockingly short supply on network TV – it’s adult programming.” Since 91% of the shows kids watch were in essence made for adults, that programming has to be “family entertainment” – suitable for both kids and adults. That being the case, the programs have been dumbed down, if you will, to the lowest common denominator.

The networks can’t admit that, of course.

You can go in several directions with this one. You can look at Ducovny’s comments and conclude that children are being protected too much, that they need to learn about danger and adventure, as this book suggests. You can read Heinemann’s remarks and contend that our society’s problems today stem in part from this refusal to imbue children with a sense of good and evil. You can look at Efron’s conclusion and surmise that the quality dilemma on television comes in large part from this desire for “one size fits all” programming, and that the reaction to it – the development of individual, specialized networks, not to mention other forms of personalized entertainment – has resulted in a fragmented society, one with no common culture at all except for the Super Bowl. You could even speculate that it has something to do with an entertainment subculture that seems to be in a perpetual state of arrested adolescence, catering to a narrow demographic reminiscent of the age today’s entertainment movers and shakers were back in 1974.

Or you can look at it as it is, an explanation of why children’s programming was so bad that it would eventually disappear from Saturday mornings altogether, replaced by morning-long news programs and infomercials, with only the occasionally bad cartoon to break the monotony.

But no matter how you look at the picture, it's not pretty.

5 comments

  1. I read both of your articles. I am confused. In the first one you condemned children's Saturday programming as not movie studio cartoons. Now in this article you declare anti-violence movement was bad for Saturday cartoons. Huh?

    When I read your first article I felt you didn't understand how a kid felt or least how I felt from 7 to 10 years. Instead Hanna Barbera crap of cheap studio era cartoon knock offs, we had half hour scripted programs. If you look at them as an adult they are pretty bad. But to a 10 year old it was like having your own prime time programming just for you on Saturday. Or weekdays with syndicated Japanese cartoons like Astro Boy, Gigantor and Speed Racer.

    By the way I like your blog and I read it every week. Thanks for time and effort.

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    1. Hi Joe,

      Thanks for the kind words - appreciate your readership!

      I think the conflict in the tone of the two articles comes partly from the time they're reflecting: one in the late sixties, the other in the early seventies. As we read the first article, traditional cartoons, e.g. Bugs Bunny, Top Cat, Alvin, etc. have been overrun by the superhero cartoon. My own memory of them as an eight-year-old was that they were awful. (By the way, I agree with you on Hanna-Barbara. I think their best cartoon by far was Top Cat, and the rest are forgettable.)

      By 1973 the superhero model has kind of faded away, replaced by the hackneyed "sitcom" version, e.g. animated movies about the Harlem Globetrotters, Ann Marie from That Girl, Siegmund the Sea Monster et al. Those could be pretty bad as well. (The Pink Panther, despite its laughtrack, could be clever, I thought.) The contemporary accounts suggest that critics really did look at this as mindless dreck.

      The constant in both of these TV Guide articles is the lack of creativity in the cartoons. The animation is subpar, the storylines simplistic, the humor either weak or nonexistent. Children's programming has always been a lightning-rod for criticism (see Howdy Doody), so admittedly this is nothing new, but in my own childhood, having been born in 1960, I was dissatisfied by the transition from traditional cartoons, (represented by Disney, Warner Brothers and MGM - Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry) to the superhero. By 1973 I'd given up.

      Personally, I've never bought in to the violence argument, at least as it was construed then. As FCC Commissioner Dean Burch will point out in next week's essay, the jury is out on the effects of violence on children. I also think violence has evolved - and not in a good way - from 1968 to today. The threat today is not from violence per se, but from the way it tends to instill in children a sense of dehumanization, that there isn't anything sacred about the human being.

      What I like about television, though, is that all this is open to interpretation - and I love your comments and your own insight! I hope you'll continue commenting.

      Mitchell

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  2. Would you really like to know what went wrong with TV programming?

    Not just kid's shows, but all TV programming?

    Very simple, actually.

    They tried to get scientific about it all.

    Instead of just putting on anything and everything that they could think of, the networks and the advertisers started to try and custom-make shows for specific audiences.

    And when you think that way, you hire consultants to tell you which people will like which programs, and what they will or won't like about programs, and who they will and won't like in those programs, etc., etc, ad infinitum.

    In the case of kid's shows, you got the anti-conflict pressure groups telling sponsors and networks that what played in an earlier era wouldn't do so today .. mainly because they said so.
    This was the earliest manifestation of the junk science of "demographics", which has essentially ruined most forms of entertainment in the USA.

    I have no "science" to quote at you, no surveys, no empirical studies - nothing other that my own experiences as a '50s kid from Chicago, with all the networks available to me.

    Before the networks took everything circa 1960 or so, most television was local, especially that which was aimed at kids.
    What did I see?
    A lot of local hosts who showed ancient cartoons (Popeye was the big favorite in the '50s - the old B/W Fleischer cartoons with their muttered voice tracks and wham-bam-slam fight scenes), or perhaps '30s two-reel comedies (Laurel & Hardy or the Little Rascals - the Three Stooges came later in the decade), or Saturday afternoon serials (Mascot, Republic, Universal - shown daily after school), or edited-down B-westerns (Buck Jones, Johnny Mack Brown, Whip Wilson, you can fill in the rest), or whatever else you could think of.
    Or maybe they'd just do live comedy and music, usually in front of a live audience of squealing brats who'd laugh at a pie in the face or sing along with an old novelty number from years before - the way I would with Two-Ton Baker the Music Maker, or Uncle Bucky and Aunt Dodie, or Uncle Johnny Coons and his "sidekick" George Dummy (actually a mannequin who only could be heard by Uncle Johnny),or Ray Rayner and his duck Chelveston, or Susan Heinkel (you remember that comment, don't you?), or any number of others (these are Chicago names ... you can no doubt come up with your own from Minnesota).

    All that went out the window once the networks took everything over, and began analyzing everything to death.

    Even with comedy, everything had to made safe and sanitized; the Stooges never had a chance, let alone Rocky and Bullwinkle and their satire.

    The real irony of the whole situation, was that all the while, kids were watching the so-called "adult" shows in prime time anyway.
    I know that my brother and I did.
    You know that you did.
    Anybody who grew up with TV did.
    And that's why we all turned out so badly (?).

    I won't see your answer to this (if any) until Monday, so take your time about it.
    Happy 5th of July.

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    1. Hey Mike,

      Don't need to take time replying - I think you're spot on. You've probably explained it much better than I could. I think you could extend your argument, that the general decline in television in general comes from the reaction to the quiz-show scandal, which was for the networks to take charge of programming away from the sponsors. While there are positive aspects to be derived from this, a definitive negative is that the ratings became far more important than they had been previously, which is what elbows out shows like Voice of Firestone.

      Dare I bring up Sesame Street, ACT, and the downfall of local kids' programming?

      Happy 5th to you as well - hope you're doing something fun!

      Mitchell

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  3. I think the decline you refer to had its seeds sown quite a while before the quiz scandal.
    Advertisers - but more importantly, advertising agencies - had the majority of control in radio-TV in the '50s, and the networks didn't care for that at all.
    More to the point, producers didn't like it either; ad agencies were the enforcers of the blacklists, and producers felt that the networks might be easier to deal with there (they were wrong about that, but that's another story).
    It may be that the quiz scandal was the catalyst, in that the threat of federal government involvement suddenly arose - and here you might have another essay altogether.

    Back to kid shows:
    Over at another blog, She Blogged By Night, the proprietress Stacia recently devoted a series of essays to a chapter-by-chapter summary of The Phantom Creeps, a 1939 Universal serial that starred Bela Lugosi as the villainous Dr. Zorka.
    I'd seen this serial as a little kid (6 or 7) on one of those daily kid shows I mentioned above, and accordingly I sent a comment to SBBY recounting the experience, as best as memory would allow.
    I can't reprise the whole thing here, but if anyone would like to seek it out, just type in She Blogged By Night and look for the label The Phantom Creeps; my comments are scattered throughout the twelve chapters.
    This serial and others like it would appear to be the kind of programming that the crusaders of the world would want to protect me from; certainly no modern-day programmer would risk putting such a show on today for 21st-century kids (no matter how entertaining it would be).

    I might have more later on, here and on the TV Guide essay; when and if ..

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And now for something completely different.