Children's television was pretty awful in the 1960s and '70s, which didn't stop me and many contemporaries from absorbing untold hours of rigid-looking animation -- usually the more violent and less socially redeeming the better.
Perhaps that's why, for all the studies citing a correlation between TV viewing and aggression, many rational people who came of age during those decades don't fret much about the likelihood of little Johnny watching animated fantasies and offing his parents; still, there is cause for concern about the resurgence of series that deal in punching and kicking things -- and, most insidiously, inspire kids to clamor for the action figures.
This weekend, ABC premieres a new Saturday morning twist on "Power Rangers" -- which, in its heyday, had kids all over making like Jackie Chan -- joining a "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" revival on Fox Box as well as that 1980s toy-industry powerhouse "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe," flexing its muscles on Cartoon Network.
These programs arrive on the eve of Toy Fair, a massive trade show that begins Sunday in New York City. The annual event doubles as a launchpad for TV programs that kids will be asked to love and, more pertinently, consume in the years ahead.
And consuming, really, is what children's television is about, with many shows serving as "program-length commercials" -- a rightfully pejorative term coined in the 1970s -- meant to demonstrate corresponding toy lines.
Fox Box, for example, is a brokered arrangement in which 4Kids Entertainment -- the licensor behind the WB's popular "Pokemon" and "Yu-Gi-Oh!" -- has essentially rented Fox's Saturday morning space in a four-year, $100-million transaction. Federal guidelines might obligate Fox stations to broadcast a few hours of enriching kids programs each week, but the deal's ultimate goal is to enrich Fox, while providing 4Kids a haven to showcase its wares.
Although 4Kids Chairman Al Kahn said the kids advertising market has been healthier than anticipated, it's no secret the company is banking on merchandising tie-ins to make the venture profitable. Appropriately, then, promotion for "Ninja Turtles" includes displays in 270 shopping malls.
"You have to look at this like it's brand new to children," noted Kahn, who downplayed pressure on 4Kids to find another hit soon, saying, "This is a marathon, not a sprint."
Whatever you call it, the race is to create the next product-moving mechanism -- something every kid will want in their Christmas stockings, mining the same vein that resulted in the sale of a reported $500 million in "Yu-Gi-Oh!" merchandise last year.
Seeking to play Grinch to this frenzied consumerism, meanwhile, is a coalition of health and child-advocacy groups, which has petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to take children's media into account as it goes about reexamining -- and potentially revising -- media ownership rules.
"This raises a lot of concerns for younger children because of their vulnerability to commercial persuasion," said Patti Miller, director of the nonprofit group Children Now's Children & the Media program.
Certainly kids have never had more viewing options, though in some instances even that can be illusory, with the same shows spread across multiple outlets. So look for "Power Rangers Ninja Storm" not only on ABC but sister cable network ABC Family, just as CBS' children's lineup is plucked from a fellow Viacom asset, Nickelodeon.
"We actually think there's going to be less diversity of programming for kids," Miller said, adding that in the past both Congress and the FCC have recognized children to be a special audience meriting protection that includes "keeping commercial influences in check."
Managing that, however, is no small feat, especially with advertisers becoming more aggressive about wanting to squeeze their messages into prime-time programs. At a forum last week, Coca-Cola President Steven Heyer threw down that gauntlet to Hollywood, saying the soft-drink marketer's goal is to be involved with programs from the outset "so we can embed what we need to say in the work."
As for the notion of whether such arrangements compromise creative integrity, Heyer sniffed, "Forgive my little laugh." And while the teenagers whose teeth Coke is rotting are doubtless more media savvy than ever in identifying thinly veiled attempts to convince them what's hip, the little exoskeletons shielding children from their daily shower of product tie-ins are less fully formed.
There are some venues that treat kids like somewhat more than simply pint-sized consumers. In addition to PBS' children's lineup, TLC and Discovery Kids share a programming block for preschoolers, "Ready Set Learn!," which relaunches with new series on Feb. 24. The venture is billed as a "commercial-free, sponsor-free" zone for the under-6 set.