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How Peggy Charren Outflanked the Children’s TV Establishment

Anybody who thinks one person can’t make a difference clearly never met Peggy Charren, who has died at the age of 86.

The founder of Action for Children’s Television, Charren lobbied for and achieved the passage of the Children’s Television Act 25 years ago. In the process, she took on and outflanked what might be called the TV-toy industrial complex, railing against the proliferation of “program-length commercials” plugging products, and demanding that broadcasters put on at least some educational fare aimed at kids in exchange for their lucrative licenses.

A self-described “old leftie from Boston,” Charren was quick-witted and combative, yet without being pugnacious about it. She made clear she shared nothing with the cultural scolds who sought to curb TV content – she expressed a fondness for a little trash now and then – but simply asked why there couldn’t be some nutritional stuff created for kids along with all the junk intended to promote Hasbro and Mattel.

“They should serve the public interest,” Charren told me in an interview back in 2001. “If they’re not going to do that, it’s my spectrum, and I want it back.”

Charren’s crusading, of course, didn’t eradicate commercialism from children’s television. But she did force the industry to acknowledge that kids weren’t just little consumers but merited some additional consideration and protection, especially faced with the bombardment of ads aimed at getting them to run in and demand their parents buy them He-Man action figures or My Little Pony.

Despite objections from broadcasters, Charren relentlessly pushed her case, using a simple argument cleverly designed to put her opponents on the defensive – basically, “Why can’t TV do something to help kids, too, and not just profit off of them?”

Some of the changes Charren sought have been rendered almost moot by the proliferation of channels devoted to children, as well as the onslaught of merchandising tied to such programming. Indeed, a decade after the act’s passage, she had largely given up on broadcasters doing much more than the barest possible minimum to meet its requirements.

Perhaps that’s why she turned much of her attention to lobbying for PBS, seeing public television as a lifeline to quality children’s fare – and particularly as a source to serve the interests of poorer kids, who didn’t share the same number of viewing options.

Nevertheless, Charren did have an impact in spurring debate and fostering a climate that recognized the value of educational and informational fare beyond bottom-line concerns. And she did so in a manner that earned the respect (grudgingly, sometimes) of those she had pushed and prodded along the way, as evidenced by the statement Nickelodeon issued in response to the news of her death: “She was a pioneer who transformed the TV landscape to serve kids with high quality programming.” Or the Disney Channel, which credited Charren with “speaking out on behalf of the most impressionable viewers” and advancing “the positive potential of media to support early learning.”

The media generally love a good David and Goliath story, but that wasn’t always true in the case of Peggy Charren, who had aimed her slingshot in their direction.

In the long run, the broadcasting Goliath might have come away relatively unscathed, but thanks to Charren’s tireless efforts, he sure as hell knew he’d been in a fight.

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