NAME: Peggy Charren
DESCRIPTION: The grande dame of kidvid.
WHATTHEY’RE SAYING: Her quixotic FCC program-quotas fight may get quashed.
No one had reason to revel more than Peggy Charren when Congress passed a 1990 law requiring TV stations to meet the educational needs of kids.
After trolling Capitol Hill 22 years for such a law, the spunky kidvid crusader called it quits. She turned the lights out at the Newton, Mass.-based Action for Children’s Television and retired to become a full-time grandmother.
“I thought the press would stop calling me, ” says Charren, who admits to being something of a media ham. “My tombstone will probably say: ‘ She was a good soundbite.'”
Charren’s fears of being ignored never materialized, particularly not since broadcasters still claim shows such as “Biker Mice From Mars” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos” are suitably educational to warrant Federal Communications Commission license renewal.
The 67-year-old Charren has returned to the fray, morphing from Grandma to gadfly in support of FCC chairman Reed Hundt’s bid to force stations to air three hours a week of educational shows for moppets.
Charren’s activist streak may come from her uncle, Sidney Buchman, a Hollywood screenwriter whose credits include “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Buchman ascended to VP of Columbia Pictures under Harry Cohn before being targeted during the McCarthy witchhunts of the 1950s. Charren says proudly that Uncle Sidney moved to London rather than rat on Communist sympathizers in Hollywood.
While raising two daughters and running children’s book fairs in suburban Boston in the mid-1960s, Charren grew distressed at the dearth of suitable programming for kids. In 1968, she formed ACT – a self-described “wispy, underfunded consumer group” – and began taking aim at the “greedy grinches” in the broadcast industry.
Jeff Chester, who along with Kathryn Montgomery has assumed the kidvid activist mantle in D.C. as co-founders of the Center for Media Education, says Charren “gives broadcasters headaches, but she gets things done. Without Peggy, there would be no rules protecting kids from broadcasters.”
Charren says censorship has never been part of her agenda. Her goal, she says, was merely to force broadcasters to meet their public interest obligations to kids. “Self-regulation will never work. Either you make strong laws and follow them, or there will always be manipulation of children, ” says Charren.
Broadcasters responded to ACT’s pleas in the 1970s, but Charren claims “the bottom fell out” when deregulation guru Mark Fowler became chairman of the FCC during the Reagan administration. Suddenly, programs such as “Captain Kangaroo” were being replaced by program-length toy commercials.
With Reagan and Fowler gone, Charren scored her biggest coup ever – passage of Rep. Ed Markey’s 1990 Children’s Television Act.
Now Charren has her eye on the big enchilada: Hundt’s three-hour-per-week kidvid quota plan. The FCC vote is shaping up as a 3-2 loss for Hundt, who’s been vilified by broadcasters and Republicans on Capitol Hill for pressing the proposal.
Predictably, Charren rises to Hundt’s defense. “There’s something sick about hammering an FCC commissioner who’s standing up for children, ” she says. Charren says she’s hopeful the FCC vote goes her way. “It helps to be an optimist when you’re a child advocate.”