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

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H.R. Pufnstuf and The Bugaloos (NBC) represent a vigorous attempt to utilize the freedom of cartoons, the whimsy of puppets and real actors. Heavily costumed, a group of slapsticians carom off each other, accompanied by raucous witches. The shows are uneven, but their comedy is genuine. The producers, Sid and Marty Krofft, are fifth-generation puppeteers whose initial success was the spicy adult show Poupées de Paris. Today several Krofft troupes tour the country. Claims Sid Krofft: "We were an adults-only show, and when the whole world went tits, we decided to go back to children. We're not in politics and we're not educators. We're here to entertain."

Wonderama (Syndicated) is a 13-year-old, three-hour-long, Every Bloody Sunday party, encouraging kids to every capital sin except lust. An affable man offscreen, Host Bob McAllister manically encourages kids to spray each other with whipped cream, or to play musical pies­last one to stop at a cutout target gets a faceful. Everyone in the 120-child audience receives at least half a dozen gifts­and a chance to wave at the folks back home. During the six-hour taping, the kids are given soda and ice cream (sandwiches were once dispensed, but too many kids threw up from excitement). Brand names are reeled off at a rate that seems like two per minute­plus commercials. The show is so successful that Wonderama gets 4,000 requests for admission each month. Presumably, a parent registers a child for Groton and Wonderama upon birth: a kid must wait four years to get on camera.

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (NET): "You make each day a special day by just your being you," announces Fred Rogers on each show. The message could be written in Karo syrup, but behind the modulated tones there is a calculation and a moral. Rogers, 41, is an ordained Presbyterian minister with ten years of broadcasting experience. His goal, he says, is to "help children recognize jealousy, rage, sadness and trust as facets of loving and being loved." His NET program is, in the deepest sense, a Christian show, aimed at a reassurance and realization. A typical song speaks of nakedness, "some are fancy on the inside, some are fancy on the outside"; a typical low-keyed show is devoted to a trip to a hospital or to the barber. In each case, the child is treated as a person of intelligence and sensitivity­unlike the audiences on most rival shows. "It is no secret that commercial children's TV has reached an all-time low," Rogers testified at Senate hearings last year. "At best, most of these programs are a waste; at worst, some of them encourage pathology."

Plato's Cave

Even the worst shows are occasionally capable of entertainment­and even enlightenment. "Besides," says a major Hollywood packager, "it's not fair to compare commercial programming and Sesame Street. Give me $8,000,000, and I can come up with educational programming too." But ABC's Chuck Jones sees Sesame Street much the same way kids do­as an entryway. "O.K., Sesame Street isn't perfect," he says. "But it began something. Walt Disney opened up character animation. Sesame Street opened children's TV to taste and wit and substance. It made the climate right for improvement."

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