In the archives of the “militant mothers”

In the special collections archive of Harvard’s eduction library. The librarians here are going out of their way to be helpful, but agonize over each piece of material drawn for us to look at.

Brad and I are going through the archives of Peggy Charren, a activist whose Action for Children’s Television was in large part responsible for drawing attention to the overwhelming commercialism of kids’ TV in the early 1970s. Their work helped draw a landmark 1974 FCC ruling admonishing the TV networks to broadcast more educational programming, and impose new rules limiting how advertisements and sponsorships could be used.

A breakthrough at the time, but even then the FCC simply provided the networks with broad guidelines, and left it up to them to self-regulate. ACT sued, saying broadcasters and the FCC chair had hatched the self-regulation scheme behind closed doors, but the courts upheld the ruling.

Four years later, the FCC revisited the issue at ACT’s request, and found that the advertising guidelines were being largely upheld, but that networks were widely ignoring the programming guidelines. Another few years of skirmishing ensued, once the Reagan administration came in, deregulation was the watchword of the day, and kids’ network TV shows became far more explicitly tied to toy and product sales.

I have mixed feelings about Charren’s work. She and her group initially aimed at violence, and were in part responsible for the disappearance of early anime from the U.S. airwaves (though the focus on violence extended far beyond ACT’s work). But they quickly refocused their attention on commercialism, after closely studying the Hasbro-owned Romper Room and finding it was essentially one long commercial for Romper Room products.

They turned their attention then to combating the insane commercialism of children’s TV, and the near-total dedication to treating those shows as empty vehicles to sell products. The group’s goals were extreme by today’s standards (and even those of the day): to eliminate commercial messages from childrens’ TV.

But I can understand. She must be horrified today, when so much even of the clothes that people (especially kids) wear and crave are emblazoned with brand names. Commercialism has crept so far into our lives that the debates of 1973 seem quaint.