I’ve noticed two common threads that run through many of my friends my age: a generally liberal outlook on government, especially increased regulation of corporations, and an undying secret love for the children’s programming of their youth (He-Man, Thundercats, Transformers, and the like.) Surely one of the great villains of this political stance was the “free market” presidency of Ronald Reagan. Strangely, we would have probably looked at Reagan as a hero when we were kids, for without his hands-off policies regarding the FCC’s regulation of children’s programming, we never would have had the cartoons we loved so dearly.
Let’s go all the way back to the year 1968. Television was filled with violence, not on its shows, but on its coverage of the real world. 1968 was the year of the Tet Offensive and increasingly violent coverage of the war in Vietnam, the riots at the Democratic National Convention, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. All of this coverage increased viewer’s anxieties about violence in society, especially the way television might influence people. Soon an air of increased regulation spread in TV land, not only from the network standards and practices departments, but also from such groups as the Federal Communications Commission and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). The clampdown was not limited only to violence, it also extended to how television was used to advertise to children. The NAB revised their guidelines and reduced the amount of advertising allowed in one hour of children’s programming from sixteen minutes to nine and a half minutes. The FCC also kept their eye on the content of shows, even going to the point of demanding that the ABC cartoon Hot Wheels be cancelled because it amounted to nothing more than a program-length commercial. Five-second bumpers indicating the separation between programming and advertising were also made mandatory. The Federal Trade Commission also conducted a yearlong study on the effects of sugar advertising on children and even considered possibly outlawing advertising to children altogether.
This is not to say that the 1970s were some sort of haven for good television for children, or that shows like Scooby-Doo and Jabberjaw were actually educational. It’s just that these shows weren’t put together with an eye only for ready-made product tie-ins and selling children’s toys like the shows that would follow in the 1980s.
It's time to move away from thinking of broadcasters as trustees and time to treat them the way that everyone else in this society does, that is, as a business. Television is just another appliance. It's a toaster with pictures.
FCC Chairman Mark Fowler, appointed in 1981.
As the Reagan administration moved into Washington, most of the regulatory controls implemented in the previous ten years were thrown out the window. The new FCC felt that the controls and policy statements implemented in the 70s were a violation of the broadcasters’ and advertisers’ First Amendment rights and argued that the “free market” (that is, the number of child viewers each show pulled in) would determine which shows were “quality.” The NAB policy on advertising minutes disappeared, and President Reagan vetoed the Children’s Television Act, which would have reinstated some of the restrictions.
What followed was an explosion in cartoons that were developed to advertise a new or preexisting line of toys. G.I. Joe, a toy that had existed since 1964, suddenly found himself the subject of a popular show. Toy company Mattel created the He-Man line of action figures and cheaply produced a show outlining their adventures. Thundercats, Transformers, Silverhawks, Super Mario Bros., Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake, My Little Pony, the list goes on and on. All of these shows featured the adventures of huge casts of characters, and each had an equivalent set of figures, vehicles, and bases that could be purchased in the real world by the child consumer masses. In 1977, 20% percent of all toys sold were licensed products from TV shows or movies. By 1987, this figure had jumped to 80%.
And the kids loved it! (I know I did). Everyone would get up early on Saturday mornings to watch the adventures of their favorite heroes (which would inevitably introduce new characters into the mix, complete with action figures of their own). Then would spend the rest of the afternoon making their own adventures with their licensed toys. Some of the shows still paid lip service to the idea that children’s TV should be educational by adding little segments onto each show that supposedly taught life-lessons. The one thing everyone was taught was to be a good little consumer.
There are fewer product-based programs today then there were back in the mid-80s, but this is mostly due to the fragmentation of the child audience thanks to cable television. The Children’s Television Act was eventually passed in 1990, but was largely toothless, as it did not outlaw product-based programs and allowed stations to declare almost any show to be “educational” (“The Jetsons fosters interest in new technology and may provide budding scientists with inspiration.”).
Ronald Reagan’s handing of the public airwaves over to corporate interests merely started a trend that continued with things like the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the DMCA. I gnash my teeth at the corporate-friendly media policies of the Reagan administration and those that followed, yet sometimes I still go down in my basement, pull out the dusty boxes, and see if the Joe team will ever succeed in assaulting Castle Grayskull.
Hendershot, Heather. Saturday Morning Censors: Television Regulation Before the V-Chip. Duke University Press, Durham, 1998.
Pecora, Nora. The Business of Children’s Television. Guilford, New York, 1998