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Frito-Lay, Fox Draw Up Cartoon Plans : Television: Children's advocacy groups are taking aim at a program based on the snack food company's Cheetah character.

December 25, 1991|SHARON BERNSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fox Broadcasting Co. is negotiating with Frito-Lay to use one of the snack food company's animated logos as the main character in a new Saturday morning cartoon for children.

The news that Fox plans to air a program based on the character of Chester Cheetah, developed for Frito-Lay to advertise Cheetos snacks, comes on the heels of controversy over CBS' use of the character of Ronald McDonald to host a series of animated specials.

The proposed program, which Fox hopes to air next September, already has drawn fire from children's television advocates.

Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children's Television, said she plans to file a formal complaint about it with the Federal Communications Commission. Charren also is planning to complain about CBS' use of Ronald McDonald as host of "Ronald McDonald's Family Theater," which aired last Friday.

"By making characters of corporate logos, you've carried the idea of program-length commercials beyond the pale," Charren said. "You could make a case that G.I. Joe (on which a children's cartoon series was once based) was a product but not a commercial, but Chester Cheetah is a commercial. Ronald McDonald is a commercial."

Margaret Loesch, president of the Fox Children's Network, said that if the company goes ahead with the series, tentatively titled 'Yo! It's Chester Cheetah's Show," it does not intend to air Frito-Lay commercials during the broadcasts.

"They're very protective over the character of Chester, so (Frito-Lay has) a very comprehensive creative control," Loesch said. "But frankly, part of our rather intense negotiation is . . . to make sure that there is no tie-in between product and series."

Fox is so determined not to confuse Chester with Cheetos that the character will never be shown eating anything on the program, Loesch said.

But Michael Jacobson, co-founder of the Washington-based Center for the Study of Commercialism, said that won't help.

"If they're using a character that's associated with a product--Cheetos--the whole show becomes an advertisement for Cheetos," Jacobson said. "And I think it's yet another example of how big business takes advantage of little kids. . . . It's pitting the slickest minds on Madison Avenue against the most naive minds."

Loesch said that Fox has been interested in the character of Chester for several years, but was initially outbid by CBS for the broadcast rights. CBS let its option lapse last year, she said, and Fox is hoping to shore up its own arrangement with Frito-Lay in time for the 1992 season.

A Frito-Lay spokeswoman said that executives who could comment on the deal were gone for the holiday and could not be reached.

Loesch said that she is interested in the property "because we think the Chester Cheetah character is a very attractive idea for kids."

There is little difference, she said, between a kids show based on Chester and "Sesame Street." "That show is a commercial for a Big Bird doll," Loesch said. "Just like the Bugs Bunny show is a commercial for Bugs Bunny paraphernalia."

That the networks would even consider shows based on corporate logos displays a marked change over the strict policies of years past.

Loesch said that while working at the Hanna-Barbera animation studios years ago, she tried to pitch the networks on a program based on Cap'n Crunch, the animated character used to sell the cereal of the same name. That time, she was rebuffed.

"The networks wouldn't touch it--they just felt it would be too problematic," Loesch said.

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