A Historian Looks at TV

Joseph E. Illick
September 20, 1999

In post World War II America, the baby boom was on, and TV was a ready-made sitter. (Some cynics noted that television and tranquilizers appeared on the market simultaneously.) The prosperous postwar population could afford TV sets, carefree kids had leisure time for viewing, and new suburbanites, lacking nearby cinemas, loved the convenience.

Early television was amateurish—it was commonly observed that nothing was rehearsed but the wrestling—and children's programs were the best and most available offerings. At the outset, the networks presented almost thirty hours a week of children's programs, usually in the late afternoon and early evening. Most popular was "Howdy Doody," a puppet show with a live audience of kids which appeared at 5 p.m. on NBC. Seven p.m. brought another half-hour puppet performance, "Kukla, Fran and Ollie." Both shows ran from the late 1940s to the mid 1950s, as TV ownership climbed from less than 2 percent to almost 80 percent of American households.

Television is probably the greatest source of common experience in the lives of children, proclaimed three Stanford researchers in 1960, who had gathered data from thousands of kids and parents, hundreds of teachers and school officials. Among their many cautious conclusions, few of which were positive, they observed that the medium was not realizing its full potential as a carrier of ideas and information; indeed, it distorted the reality of adult life. But not to worry, they said, as children aged they generally moved to the print media.

No one loved television more than the sponsors. Drawn to prime time as the surest way to treasure, they were given added incentive when ABC pioneered the early evening family show, which had the advantage of including children without the drawback of depending on them as consumers.

That changed when ABC launched "The Flintstones," the longest running prime-time cartoon in TV history—until "The Simpsons." It aired from 8:30-9:00 p.m. from 1960 to 1966.

A parody of suburban living—just as the American working class was vacating the city and adopting a middle-class lifestyle—"The Flintstones" fit the family show format with one wonderful innovation: it generated merchandise for kids to (make their parents) buy, toys and lunch pails, comic books, cereal and soap.

Meanwhile, local stations, left to their own devices by the networks during the afternoon, began trotting out the cartoons of yesteryear, cheap entertainment financed by local sponsors. But as prime time became increasingly desirable, sponsors clamored for more advertising space and the opportunity for local programming diminished. A portion of afternoons and Saturday mornings became the children's hours, an arrangement satisfying to toy manufacturers, candy makers, and cereal producers who now could reach more kids per dollar spent. And the networks could earn higher profits through reruns. Out went "Kukla, Fran and Ollie," and in came "The Three Stooges."

There had always been a worry about violence on TV. The Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency had fastened on this issue as early as 1954 and again in 1961 and 1964. The Surgeon General's Report in 1972 (reiterated in 1982) stated that video violence led to aggressive behavior by young viewers. But it was conventional wisdom in the TV industry that no show ever received low ratings due to excessive violence.

Liberals saw a solution in educational television. The most notable early success came through the Children's Television Workshop (1968) and "Sesame Street," which demonstrated what could be accomplished when the welfare of the young, rather than consumerism, was the primary consideration. "Sesame Street" chose as its target preschool kids from inner-city and low-income families, though later research showed that youngsters from middle as well as lower-class homes benefited from watching a program that managed to be both educational and entertaining. CTW was the innovation of the 1970s. But children did not desert the commercial networks for public TV.

In 1982, National Institute of Mental Health issued its massive report, "Television and Behavior." It observed that TV offered little useful health information, purveyed a distorted image of mental illness, portrayed the consumption of alcohol positively and coaxed children to consume unhealthy foods. Government concern about violence had not constrained the networks, and some researchers were convinced that the convergence of findings supported the conclusion of a causal relationship between televised violence and later aggressive behavior.

Television did little or nothing to nourish creativity, the report found, not to mention verbal fluency or reading. Indeed, there was a negative association between amount of television viewing and mental ability or IQ; the more viewing, the lower the IQ. "Television and Behavior" was no simple diatribe; it drew on a sophisticated model of cognitive and emotional functioning. Nor did the report expect that the TV industry could be persuaded to alter its product; rather, it argued that children should be taught to understand the medium.

There was good reason for pessimism that industry would reform. The Federal Communications Commission had announced its support for industry self-regulation as early as 1974. The Federal Trade Commission's attempt at banning candy advertising was halted by the Reagan Administration and in 1984, the FCC removed all time limits on commercials.

One of leading executives, Cy Schneider, wrote candidly and bluntly about the prospects for industry reform in 1987. The television business works on three simple principles: keep the audience up, the costs down and the regulators out. The reformers forget that television's first mission is not to inform, educate or enlighten. Its first mission is to entice viewers to watch the commercials.

The Reagan Administration's deregulation policy was compatible with this perspective, and one of the President's last official acts was to veto legislation that would have put modest limits on kids TV ads.

The advent of cable television has enabled children to penetrate even farther into the secret world of adult violence and sex. But it also presented them with viewing options that were undeniably wholesome, a fact which Schneider's own Nickelodeon venture verified. But competition from cable, far from pushing networks in creative new directions, has wed them to formulas that worked. As advertising revenues skyrocketed, children are undeniably the targets of major campaigns.

In 1990, President Bush broke ranks with industry by failing to veto a bill restricting advertising—one which stipulated an amount of quality children's programming for license renewal, a provision characterized by an FCC lawyer from the Reagan days as straight out-and-out government censorship. However, when the networks proposed that programs such as "The Flintstones" met the educational requirement, the FCC originally agreed, though it reversed itself under the Clinton Administration.

Meanwhile, opposition to federal funding of public television has crystallized. When Al Gore depicted Big Bird as an endangered species, a spokesperson for the Heritage Foundation replied: 'Sesame Street' is just another kids show. No better than 'Underdog' or 'The Flintstones'. . . . If 'Sesame Street' was so effective, why do we have such a literacy problem?

Defending children's television while defending against the commercial offerings is a burdensome task for parents. The ratings system of the 1990s, with some promise of a monitoring system for the future, may help. As of now, television is the technology that makes parents feel powerless—and foolish, since they purchased the set in the first place. Parents recognize what polls have confirmed: that educational television often loses its hold on children by the time they start school, if not much, much sooner.

At its worst, television augments aggression, sensationalizes sex, stigmatizes curiosity and trivializes experience. Our pediatricians also charge that it contributes to our children's obesity. It nevertheless has some redeeming pedagogical features. And it is undeniably, irretrievably part—a very large part—of the lives of American children.


Joseph E. Illick is a professor at San Francisco State University.


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