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?
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.