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The Psychologist of 'Sesame Street' Is Mad as Hell : TELEVISION AND AMERICA'S CHILDREN : A Crisis of Neglect by Edward L. Palmer (Oxford University Press: $18.95; 192 pp. 0-19-505540-3)

November 20, 1988|Milton Chen | Chen is director of instructional television at KQED-San Francisco and co-editor of "Children and Microcomputers: Research on the Newest Medium" (Sage).

We interrupt the Book Review to bring you this special bulletin: By the time they graduate from high school, American youngsters have spent an average of 17,000 hours in front of a TV set, more than the 14,000 hours they spent in school, more than any other single activity save sleeping. Given that fact, it is unfortunate how little sleep this country has lost over the quality of its children's programming.

It is easy to agree that much of that time could be better spent. The more interesting question is how television can enrich the intellectual and social lives of young people. Relatively few TV producers and researchers have found that question sufficiently interesting or financially rewarding to sustain an entire career.

Edward Palmer's name may not be a household word, but "Sesame Street" is. Twenty years ago, Palmer, a psychologist and TV researcher, came to the Children's Television Workshop (CTW) in New York to help launch what has been called the most important TV series ever produced. As CTW's vice president for research, he was responsible for ensuring that "Sesame Street" developed as a partnership between TV producers and writers on the one hand, and psychologists and educators on the other. Since those two groups are not altogether compatible, Palmer also developed research techniques so that young viewers could have their own say in the matter. Today, the "CTW model" and Palmer's research have been widely utilized by producers and academics both here and abroad.

This book is his personal statement after two decades in the industry. The years, rather than dimming his convictions, have intensified them. "The U.S. public needs to be shocked," he writes, about "the national disgrace" in American children's television. Palmer lays the blame for "The crisis of neglect" squarely at the feet of a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) "with its head in the sand," "indifferent to children's interests," and a "foot-dragging TV industry driven by the desires of faceless stockholders." Here is one authority who's mad as hell and not going to fake it anymore.

Palmer details the 13-year history of the longest-running petition in FCC history, first lodged in 1970 by Action for Children's Television (ACT), a Boston-based group of parents and child advocates. The petition requested rulings on broadcasters' obligations to expand educational offerings for children and restrict commercials during children's programs. The FCC's denial in 1983, coming in the Age of Reagan, pursued a policy of economic deregulation, leaving children's programming to the honor system. The FCC's free-market stance was summed up in one of former chairman Mark Fowler's more memorable remarks: "Television is just another appliance. It's a toaster with pictures."

In the end, children are the ones who get burned. Palmer charges that since the 1983 ruling, "not one of our three major networks supports a regular weekday program schedule for children." Instead, commercial stations and toy manufacturers have brought a new cast of intergalactic warriors and anti-terrorist agents to the screen, while propelling their merchandising to new heights. Product sales for superheroes such as He-Man and G.I. Joe have made toy executives superhappy.

In its race to deregulate, the FCC overlooked one detail: that market forces cannot serve the higher interests of children, who lack purchasing power and a strong lobby in Washington. Palmer argues that children deserve special protection in the rough-and-tumble of the TV marketplace, just as they do in the workplace and in schools. He does credit some network efforts, such as the children's and family specials, but says that specials hardly constitute a comprehensive service.

The FCC claimed that cable TV and videocassettes would help fill the void. Palmer's response is that "cable has not spent the extra amounts necessary to incorporate a solid educational emphasis in its children's services" and that the additional costs tend to "exclude the poor." While VCRs have surpassed cable's reach--more than 60% of American homes now have one, according to Nielsen--they are mainly used to tape broadcasts or rent movies.

The most interesting section of Palmer's book describes foreign broadcasting systems and their children's programs, especially those in European nations and Japan. The annual license fee charged in those countries for owning TV sets provides an ongoing source of funding for children's programming. It comes as no surprise that winners of the \o7 Prix Jeunesse\f7 , given for the best children's programs in the world, typically come from those countries. Past competitions have honored the Norwegian "But Glass Birds Can Never Die" for its treatment of death and grief for young children, and a Dutch production that profiled children of foreign laborers in Holland as they return to visit their native Morocco or Greece.

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