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Confessions of a Saturday Morning Subversive : TV: It's an adult world where nothing is too weird or too violent if it sells ads and toys--which adults pay for. Why?

June 09, 1996|JIM RYAN | Among the animation credits Jim Ryan is proud of are "The Pink Panther," "Tom and Jerry," "Scooby Doo" and "The Flintstones."

Story idea for a new animated series:

Have a super-insane, super-maniacal, super-genius super-terrorist blow up cities and towns all over the world from his homemade flying saucer. Then have the terrorist kidnap our president and four other world leaders and surgically implant computer chips in their heads to control their minds. Then have him order them to wage nuclear war on each other. And then have an obviously deranged scientist master, who has vivisected a bunch of dogs so that they can be "transdogmafied" into semi-humans, order his genetically altered mutant canines to get in their hound-human vehicles and use their hound-human weapons to launch a hound-human counter-terrorist attack on the vicious villain and laser blast his whole operation into a zillion chunks of radioactive waste.

Who on earth would do a show like that for kids?

I would. And I did.

And every day that's passed since I wrote this diabolical drivel, I've felt guiltier about it. Why did I take this idea from a major animation company and write a script based on it? Because 10 months ago, after 30 years of steady employment in animation writing, I got laid off. I haven't worked much since. (A 60-year-old cartoon writer, I've discovered, is as much in demand as a Hudson Hornet hubcap.) I needed the bucks. So I rationalized. And I did it. And now I'm sorry I did it.

But I'm even sorrier for what's happened to children's television in the past few years. The idea is no longer to entertain or to enlighten kids. The idea is to exploit the little suckers for all their parents are worth. Sell them more and more weirder and weirder junk. The program schedules are now loaded with insect-men, machine-humans, gizmo-geeks, mega-maggots, alien-chimps, reptile-boys and power-paranoids, all of which can be made into toys, models, coloring books, backpacks, birthday party decorations. These are not really shows at all; they're the big commercials in between the little commercials.

What's even more disturbing is that often the most popular of these merchandisable maxi-freaks are the villains in the stories. And even the designated good guys throw lawful behavior out the window as they go on their butt-busting rampages for comic "justice." They act more like super-sociopaths than superheroes.

But so what? Does this blurring of the lines between heroes and villains harm anybody? Does watching hours of these mean-spirited mixed messages every day affect kids' behavior? Could it possibly have anything to do with the increased level of youth violence and the lack of remorse shown by ever-younger lawbreakers? Kidvid moguls all deny it, of course. Young people's actions, they insist, are not influenced by what they see on children's television. If so, the sponsors who spend billions of advertising dollars on kids' TV, trying to shape youthful buying habits, have to be even more mindless than the characters on the shows.

Years ago, I cowrote the award-winning series "Fat Albert" with Bill Cosby. We had no glorified villains. No mind-controlling maniacs and no nutcase nuclear terrorists. We did entertaining stories with a point. Our young audience really learned something. And we got good ratings. We could do shows like that again. But today, a kids' cartoon with a nonthreatening, believable hero is unsalable. It takes an awful lot to beat Atomic Nazi Phlegm Freaks at the toy store.

The FCC used to ban programs that were obviously produced just for their merchandising appeal to kids. They ought to do it again. But the government, the networks, the producers, the toy makers won't change anything unless we so-called grown-ups raise some hell about our kids being hustled. Until we stop sitting on our thumbs, young people will never get quality entertainment. They'll only get what their parents will allow: wall-to-wall toongoon infomercials.

I don't know if I've actually hurt any kids by writing the story I did. I do know I haven't helped any. But, as I said, I needed the money. Maybe that's not a good reason, but it's my excuse. What's yours?

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