Battling for balance in kids TV

Compromise and tradeoffs required to finance the infusion of programming

In volume and variety, there has never been a greater assortment of video programming aimed at children, sliced and diced into categories ranging from “tween” practically down to zygote.

The question is how to finance that infusion, without force-feeding ads eliciting shrieks of “Mommy, buy me that!” upon the youngest, most impressionable consumers, rightfully deemed worthy of safeguards against the crassest levels of commercialism.

It’s an argument, frankly, that requires compromise and tradeoffs. Perhaps that’s because bringing children into any such debate politicizes the process and tends to eradicate nuance, fostering sweeping pronouncements — often politically motivated — about “protecting the children.”

“The problem is the fundamental economics of kids television are based on selling licensed merchandise,” says James Steyer, CEO and founder of the nonprofit group Common Sense Media and the author of “The Other Parent: The Inside Story of the Media’s Effect on Our Children.” “The money was made on merchandise, not programming, and that obviously raises concerns from a kids and family perspective. … That’s the challenge of the past 20 years.”

The history of TV’s relationship with kids is certainly checkered, perhaps best exemplified currently in “Mad Men,” where mother-of-the-year candidate Betty Draper shoos her offspring to watch TV unsupervised at the first hint of trouble.

The launch of cable network The Hub, moreover — a joint venture between Discovery Communications and Hasbro — offers a reminder of how bad things once were.

Hasbro, Mattel and other toy marketers, after all, unleashed a wave of “program-length commercials” in the 1970s and ’80s, not-so-subtly promoting properties like “G.I. Joe” and “He-Man.” The resistance came in the form of an advocacy group called Action for Children’s Television, led by Peggy Charren, whose tireless efforts eventually resulted in the Children’s Television Act of 1990.

Charren, though, wasn’t the typical crusading scold, advancing a more positive message — championing not only that children be shielded from excessive commercials but demanding that broadcasters, in exchange for their lucrative licenses, be obligated to provide at least a few hours of educational programming to enrich kids.

To say the world has changed in the intervening decades is the height of understatement — including deregulation, and broadcasters’ decision to broker their Saturday-morning kidvid lineups to outside suppliers. At the same time, cable has aggressively expanded, with heavyweights like Nickelodeon and Disney Channel birthing offshoots catering to niches like preschoolers (Nick Jr.) and boys (Disney XD).

If there’s one common thread to the media universe, it’s that there’s a lot more of everything; the challenge rests in finding the wherewithal to pay for it.

Part of that revenue is shouldered by DVD sales, so modern-day Betty Drapers can park kids in front of the TV and know precisely what they’re seeing.

The real money, however, remains in merchandising, where franchises like “Dora the Explorer” and Disney’s Princess gear can ride their TV exposure to untold millions. By that measure, whether the cartoon preceded the toy or vice versa becomes almost moot.

In fact, some of the best kid shows — think Cartoon Network’s “The Clone Wars” — seemingly exist primarily to stoke merchandising. That animated series has effectively kept Lucasfilm’s “Star Wars” machinery humming five years after the most recent movie trilogy.

Given fragmentation of the audience, would such a bountiful array of programming be possible without merchandising tie-ins? If not, will some of that content disappear? And where do we draw the line in terms of relying on (as opposed to mandating) parental responsibility when it comes to kids’ sensible consumption of media?

The knee-jerk reaction, of course, is that force-feeding ads to children is bad, and to hell with greedy toy profiteers. It was easy to cheer the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which recently petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to take action against “Zevo-3,” an animated program created to sell Skechers shoes.

Yet while that group’s mission statement begins well enough — seeking to “reclaim childhood from corporate marketers” — it proceeds to warn, “When children adopt the values that dominate commercial culture — dependence on the things we buy for life satisfaction, a ‘me first’ attitude, conformity, impulse buying, and unthinking brand loyalty — the health of democracy and sustainability of our planet are threatened.”

Something like the Skechers show might be icky, but using those criteria, few baby boomers should still be breathing.

Then again, media policy pertaining to kids has regularly been marred by overreaching. Because while the brightly colored shows might look simple, finding answers that achieve a proper balance — weighing commercial needs against the public good — remains far from kids stuff.

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