1985 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
December 12, 1985, Thursday, Late City Final Edition
SECTION: Section C; Page 1, Column 1; Home Desk
HEADLINE: CONTROVERSY ABOUT TOYS, TV VIOLENCE
BYLINE: By GLENN COLLINS
TWELVE parents sat in a circle during the first "He-Man Workshop" at the Christ Church Day School in Manhattan and voiced their concerns - and confusions - about the state of children's television entertainment.
"I'm worried about the one-dimensional nature of the characters," said the father of one of the school's 90 children between the ages of 2 and 5. He was referring to "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe," the popular half-hour weekday animated children's television show. "Why can't an all-powerful hero have a sense of humor too?" he asked.
"And yet, somehow I feel this Superhero play is important," said the mother of a 4-year-old. "Isn't it just a modern version of 'The Odyssey'?"
Their words were the latest manifestation of a controversy over the content of children's television programming and the commercial exploitation of the young that has long embroiled not only parents, educators, legislators, broadcasters and toy makers, but also psychologists, who have conducted many studies of the impressionability of small children exposed to televised images.
As parents descend on stores to buy toys merchandised by children's television, the debate has revived in response to the announcement that Rambo, the gun-toting former Green Beret popularized in films of Sylvester Stallone, will soon become the star of a half-hour animated children's show.
As is true of a number of popular shows, the "He-Man" toys came first, while with Rambo Mr. Stallone's movies initially gave the character visibility; however the arrival of Rambo toys will coincide with the animated show's debut next spring.
But to some of the parents who gathered on a recent evening in the Christ Church United Methodist building on Park Avenue, the advent of a "Rambo" show was of concern. "As a parent, I find it offensive," said Matti Feldman, a developmental psychologist, at the day-school meeting. She led the discussion with Naomi Siegel, a parent-educator.
The "Rambo" program will start in April with five weekly episodes timed to the arrival of a Rambo line of "action-figure" dolls in toy stores, manufactured by Coleco Industries, makers of the Cabbage Patch Kids.
Next fall, the show will begin a cycle of 65 episodes currently in production.
Do the show's producers think that the R-rated "Rambo: First Blood Part II" is an appropriate source for children's entertainment?
"When you think that the President has mentioned him, the symbol of Rambo transcends the film," said Amy Kastens, a spokesman for Anabasis Investments N.V., producers of the television series. "That symbol is a symbol of good. He's very patriotic. He stands for strength, he only does good, and he undoes evil."
She added that the lead character of the children's shows will not be a Sylvester Stallone look-alike. "It'll be a total departure from the film," she said of the television show. "There won't be any violence. He will have giant muscles and all of that. But he will be a guy who loves nature and won't look for trouble."
The show will become "a sales tool" for the toys, Mrs. Kastens said. Although not directly involved in the "Rambo" film production, "we are working in conjunction with the producers to make sure that the product line and cartoon series carry the same messages," said Barbara C. Wruck, a spokesman for Coleco.
It is that message that some parents at the school objected to. But they did not limit their criticism to "Rambo," naming children's shows like "G.I. Joe," "Thundercats," "Voltron," "Transformers," "Gobots" and "Superfriends," among others.
Discussion focused on "He-Man," however, the action adventure show about the blond muscle man who is prince of the "planet Eternia." "It is immensely popular," said Peggy Marble, the school's director.
"I would say in terms of boys age 3, 4 and 5, it's almost a national obsession for them." She added: " 'He-Man' is the most prominent of these shows because it seems to absorb their fantasy life in a most powerful way."
She feels that 4- and 5-year-old children "are uniquely vulnerable because of their age." Miss Marble and some parents at the school had complaints about the show, primarily that it was violent, depicting force as the way to resolve conflicts. They said it promotes unusually aggressive play among the school's children.
Miss Marble said: "The characters on "He-Man" are devoid of human characteristics - they have no emotions and no humor. They may lead children to idealize such qualities."
The "He-Man" show made its television debut in 1983, a year after He-Man toys appeared in the stores, according to a spokesman for Mattel Inc., the manufacturer. It was the nation's top-rated daytime syndicated animated children's show according to the A.C. Nielsen Company's most recent national television market analysis last July, and in November the show had an average audience of 2,900,000 households across the country. This season She-Ra, He-Man's sister, has her own program, which in November had an average audience of 2,800,000 households.
Some 70 toy characters have been created for the "Masters of the Universe" series, with a castle play set and other accessories. So far, Mattel has sold 125 million dolls at about $4.50 each, and last year retail sales were $500 million worldwide.
"We try not to have He-Man hurt any living creature, and the good guys always win," said Lou Scheimer, president of Filmation, the animation studio in Reseda, Calif., that produces "He-Man" and "She-Ra." "He-Man is heroic," Mr. Scheimer said, "but not omnipotent. He does make mistakes." He stated that most of the show's critics have never watched the program carefully, or they would notice "that we've given children a lot of positive messages."
"We've done shows on drugs, on child molestation and gun control," said Mr. Scheimer.
Paul Cleveland, senior vice president of marketing for boy's toys at Mattel, said much of the criticism of "He-Man" was unfair. "Having good guys and bad guys didn't start with 'He-Man,' " he said. "Little boys played that way 1,000 years ago."
He added: "Look at 'Road Runner' - can anything be more violent than that?" referring to the cartoon series.
Others in the toy industry have pointed to a long tradition of violence in children's entertainment beginning well before Punch and Judy shows. Answering criticism about overcommercialism, they point to the merchandising of Walt Disney and "Sesame Street" characters as well as product spinoffs of "Superman," "Batman," and "Star Wars" films. The parents at the day-school meeting also criticized the commercial content of the programs. Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television, a Massachusetts-based, nonprofit group, said in an interview that she is especially alarmed by programs designed by toy companies to sell merchandise.
"These shows are not thought up by people trying to create characters or a story," she explained, terming them "program-length advertisements." "They are created to sell things," she said. "Accessories in the toy line must be part of the program.
It reverses the traditional creative process. The children are getting a manufacturer's catalogue instead of real programming content."
Mrs. Charren said: "Basically there are only a few kinds of shows on commercial television: stuffed animals, adventure figures, robots and the dolls for little girls. For the most diverse age group in human development - age 2 to 11 - these shows are almost all alike."
Mrs. Charren said she does not believe in censorship of the shows, but favors "creating more diversity," and is supporting a bill in Congress that would compel broadcasters to air diverse children's programming. (See accompanying article.) While critics have confronted broadcasters and toy makers, researchers have attempted to determine the effect of television shows on children's development.
In 1982 the National Institute of Mental Health released a report updating the 1972 Surgeon General's study on the relation of televised violence to children's behavior. It concluded that there was "overwhelming" scientific evidence that "excessive" violence on television led directly to aggression and violent behavior among children. "It is true that some shows, like 'He-Man,' have a kind of moral," said Dr. Jerome L. Singer, professor of psychology at Yale University and co-director of the Yale University Family Television Research Center.
"But our observations of young children have been that they don't get it.
What we have noticed is that the play with toys like He-Man tends to be rather aggressive."
However, Dr. Donald F. Roberts, the educational and psychological consultant for "He-Man," and a professor of communication at Stanford University, pointed to a study of 50 children he has conducted that "indicates that children do pick up on these messages and they do understand them," he said.
L AST July, the Children's Television Education Act of 1985 was introduced by Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, paralleling a bill introduced in the House of Representatives by Democratic Representative Timothy E. Wirth of Colorado. The measures would require commercial television stations to provide seven hours a week of programming that enhances children's education, five of those hours on weekdays.
The bill would also require the Federal Communications Commission to hold hearings on the issue of overcommercialization in children's television, and to report its findings to Congress.
"We hear from parents and educators and people in the community that they're concerned about these shows, and that they would love to have alternative shows available," Senator Lautenberg said, referring to children's current commercial fare.
"These shows are a violation of good taste and good judgment, and the worst thing is that there is no choice," he added. "Broadcasters have an obligation to do something that enhances the ability of children to learn. But what's happening is that the product on these shows is being sold through the entire broadcast - not just in the commercial intervals. It's objectionable to seduce children to want to buy things unsuspectingly in the show that they might be watching."
The broadcasting industry has opposed such legislation. "We're not against kids or Senator Lautenberg, but we have philosophical and practical problems with the bill," commented Shaun M. Sheehan, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents more than 875 television stations plus the three networks.
"Is there appropriate programming on television for children to view?" he asked. "Most of us receive a bare minimum of nine television signals, and that amply demonstrates that there is appropriate programming for children." He was referring to all programming, including that on educational and cable channels.
Mr. Sheehan added: "No matter how benign this bill may appear, we vigorously oppose the notion of governmentally mandating any judgments over editorial product in the media.