Peggy Charren passed away last week. Out of concern for the influence TV has on kids, Ms. Charren founded the group Action for Children’s Television — a group that made a profound, and positive, difference in reforming TV programming aimed at youth.
Ms. Charren began her reforming efforts in the late 1960s, when she discovered that there was little quality TV programming for children. She was especially concerned about the incessant advertising for sugar-filled breakfast cereals, toys, and the steady stream of “wall-to-wall monster cartoons.”
Banding together with groups of parents, educators, and others, Charren founded the group Action for Children’s Television (ACT). Their first target was their local Boston station’s version of Romper Room, on which the host hawked toys to the show’s young audience. In 1969, ACT funded a study of the effects of commercialism on children, and threatened to send the report to the Federal Communication Commission. The host soon stopped promoting toys. ACT followed this victory with another, forcing a Boston station to reinstate the popular children’s show Captain Kangaroo, which it had dropped.
Soon, ACT had grown to more than 10,000 members. They testified before the Senate Communications Subcommittee and demanded meetings with the heads of the three broadcast networks. Their meeting with CBS head Michael Dann influenced the network boss deeply; six months after the meeting, Dann resigned from CBS to work for the Children’s Television Workshop, producers of Sesame Street. Pressure from ACT also led the FCC to issue a Children’s Television Policy Statement in 1974, which told broadcasters they had a responsibility to air “educational and informational” programming for kids. And ACT convinced the National Association of Broadcasters to cut back on the number of commercials during children’s shows.
ACT had a profound influence on reshaping children’s TV throughout the 1970s. On action-oriented cartoons like Super Friends, explicit violence, including fistfights and explosions, were forbidden; and educational material for kids expanded, from ABC’s Schoolhouse Rock cartoons on Saturday mornings, to its weekday ABC Afterschool Specials, to CBS’ In The News segments, which explained current events and issues to kids.
Charren and ACT pioneered many of the same tactics later adopted by the Parents Television Council, from use of scientific studies on the harm done to children by TV advertising and programming, to testimony before the FCC and Congress, to urging programmers and advertisers to create and sponsor more quality, family fare. In so doing, ACT utilized the same logic the PTC still uses today – the fact that the Federal Communications Act of 1934 states that holders of broadcast licenses are required to operate “in the public interest.”
Ms. Charren was a tireless advocate for holding broadcasters and networks responsible for their actions. “They should serve the public interest,” Charren told a Variety reporter in 2001. “If they’re not going to do that, it’s my spectrum, and I want it back.” Like the PTC, she demanded that broadcasters fulfill their responsibilities to “the public interest” in exchange for being allowed to use the publicly-owned airwaves for free. Ms. Charren was also an early advocate of a form of cable choice, urging cable operators to provide subscribers with a way to block unwanted content.
Inevitably, the entertainment industry, especially the creators of toy-related cartoons like Transformers, attacked Ms. Charren and accused her of “censorship.” (This is the industry’s automatic fallback position any time anyone asks them to act responsibly.) They also accused Ms. Charren of hating TV – a charge she denied, telling the Los Angeles Times in 1983, “People who don’t think something has any value at all usually don’t spend time trying to fix it. [TV] can be a wonderful, magical box, particularly for children — and isn’t it a shame that it isn’t.”
Ultimately, after many years of struggle, ACT succeeded in 1990 with the passage of the Children’s Television Act, which limited the amount of advertising time in programs aimed at children. The 1996 Telecommunications Act expanded on this, requiring broadcasters to air three hours a week of “educational and informational” programming for kids, as a condition of receiving their broadcast licenses.
In 1992, Ms. Charren disbanded Action for Children’s Television, stating that it had accomplished its goals; but she remained a vocal advocate of quality educational programming for children. She also authored two books, The Media Show (1987) and Buy Me That! A Kids’ Survival Guide to TV Advertising (1989).
Eventually, the television industry recognized the tremendous contribution Ms. Charren had made in urging the industry to improve its treatment of children. Ms. Charren was recognized with a Trustees’ Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 1989, a Peabody Award in 1991, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995. But perhaps the greatest tribute to Ms. Charren are the generations of children who benefited from her concern, and the actions she took to protect them from harm – and improve the media environment in which they grew.