Peggy Charren, who as the mother of two daughters in the 1960s launched a grassroots movement to improve the educational quality of children’s television, culminating in the passage of the 1990 Children’s Television Act, died on Thursday. She was 86.
Her daughter, Deborah Charren Diehl, told the Boston Globe that her mother had suffered from vascular dementia for several years.
Charren was awarded a Peabody, an Emmy and, in 1995, the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work with the organization she founded, Action for Children’s Television.
“Peggy Charren was TV’s first true kids’ advocate and someone who we profoundly respected,” Nickelodeon said in a statement. “She was a pioneer who transformed the TV landscape to serve kids with high quality programming. Her legacy is one that we will always honor and uphold.”
In the 1960s, Charren and other parents in her neighborhood were upset that the only choices for their children on TV were violent cartoons packed with commercials.
In an interview with the Jewish Women’s Archive, Charren recalled that “I got some friends over to the house, people who were involved in various aspects of children’s education, caring about children, and I said, ‘What can we do to make some noise?'”
She named their group Action for Children’s Television, and over their years they did make a lot of noise, savvy in garnering publicity as they pushed network executives, members of Congress and the FCC for reforms.
One of their first targets, according to the Paley Center for Media, was the Boston version of “Romper Room,” in which the host would try to sell toys during the broadcast. As ACT funded a study in 1969 of the effects of commercialism of the show, threatening to turn in their findings to the FCC, the Boston affiliate toned down the hawking of products.
ACT generated headlines as it demanded meetings with the programming chiefs of the big three commercial networks, and later when it sought to meet with the FCC, which eventually came up with nonbinding guidelines advising stations to air educational shows for children. As pressure mounted, in 1973 the National Assn. of Broadcasters even came up with a list of provisions for affiliates to follow in programming for kids.
The pressure had an impact on the TV landscape, as the nature of children’s television did change by the mid-1970s, with the “ABC Afterschool Special,” and CBS’ “In the News” segments that aired during Saturday morning commercial breaks.
It was not until 1990 — after years of lobbying — that ACT saw passage of the Children’s Television Act, which limits the amount of advertising time in shows aimed at kids and requires stations to prove the educational component of their programming. It also put the end to the practice of program-length commercials.
Even though Charren and the ACT members represented what was one of the first public interest groups that acted as a kind of watchdog over the media landscape, they bristled at the idea that they were out to censor content.
“Action for Children’s Television does not support television reform that protests individual programs,” Charren and Kim Hays, the ACT executive director, wrote in 1982, just as religious right groups were mounting their own actions to pressure the networks on programming. “ACT is proud of the fact that it has never once in its history told a broadcaster to ‘take this program off the air because we don’t like it.'”
Charren said that their goal was to broaden TV viewing options, not to limit them, and even campaigned against the efforts of the right-leaning Coalition for Better Television, founded by the Rev. Donald Wildmon.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler called Charren a “national treasure.”
“Parents across America owe a debt of gratitude to Peggy, who signlehandedly turned the vast wasteland that was children’s television programming in the 1960s and 1970s into the plethora of educational, informational and entertaining programming families enjoy today,” he said.
Charren was raised in New York and, after graduating from Connecticut College in 1949, headed the film department at WPIX-TV in New York. After she married Stanley Charren and had her first child, she devoted her time to community efforts when they moved to Boston.
After the passage of the 1990 legislation, Charren disbanded ACT, noting that many of its goals had been achieved.
“Through her efforts, millions of young Americans have gotten ready to learn in school and succeed in life, and it’s hard to imagine a better legacy than that,” said Patrick Butler, president and CEO of the Assn. of Public Television Stations.
Her husband and daughters survive her.
WGBH-TV in Boston is planning a memorial for Charren in early March.
Jonathan C. Abbott, WGBH-TV’s president and CEO, said Charren “was small in stature but in nothing else. She took on the giants of the commercial television industry in the 1970s and brought about substantive programming and legislative changes that bettered the lives of millions.”