Television: Who's Afraid of Big, Bad TV?

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The reasons were always pathetically simple. A commercial spot on a weekend morning costs a sponsor an average $7,500. For that kind of money he wants lots of zeros behind the sales figures. Nothing could be harder than the sell for G.I. Joe with his own flamethrower; for Dune Buggy Wheelies ("Man, they're out of sight . . . get your friends up tight"); for seven bendable, flexible outer spacemen. For those sponsors, the action is in canned-laughter series or manic cartoon shows that are allowed up to 16 minutes of commercials per hour­double the usual rate allowed by the National Association of Broadcasters Code. Enlightenment? It belongs in the classroom, or TV's own ghetto, the UHF channels.

Today, kids who cross the Street and wander to other channels have a narrow choice. Some typical programs:

Romper Room (Syndicated): Many advertisers nourish the impossible dream of an hour-long commercial. Few realize that it is already here in Romper Room. Action for Children's Television, a pressure group of Massachusetts parents, once complained to Bert Claster, the show's producer, about its treatment of children as consumers in training, programmed to buy only the Romper Room brands of toys. Replied Claster: "This is commercial television, isn't it?" Indeed it is.

Captain Kangaroo (CBS): Now in his 16th season, the Captain (Bob Keeshan) has never set his sights above 3 ft. 5 in. Says he: "Most people are doing children's shows until something better comes along. I never had a desire to do programs for adults. Children are a very warm audience." Keeshan (formerly Clarabelle the Clown on Howdy Doody) uses the Walter Cronkite approach, addressing the camera directly. His Miltown mood indicates that if the sky were falling, it would be about as important as a broken crayon. The gentleness tends to reassure parents, but children are more often caught up in the lively puppet sequences by Cosmo Alegretti. "We program the gentle side of life," claims Keeshan, an approach that includes gentle lead-ins to cereal, toy, shoe, and game commercials.

Archie's Fun House (CBS): Filmation is a leading producer of Saturday-morning TV with 2½ hours, including that masterwork of animated fatuity, Will the Real Jerry Lewis Stand Up? Both Jerry and Archie are marked by strong anti-intellectualism (teachers are dumb or sadistic; scientists talk with burlesque accents). Both shows are lavishly produced, but Archie shows bigger profits by far. Incorporating all the old malt-shop wit of the comic strip, the hour-long marathon features film clips of kids giggling, and promotes rock-Muzak­two of the songs have sold more than a million copies. Yet the Archie studio is skilled enough to do some sparkling letter "commercials" for Sesame Street. Studio Head Norman Prescott, who has learned that you can have your buck and pass it, too, explains: "It all starts and ends with the network. We might prefer to teach, but nobody is buying that from us."

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