In their less circumspect moments, the people who create, manufacture and market weekend-morning children’s shows refer to their audience as “mice.” Last year, advertisers laid out more than $400 million for commercials ingeniously designed to lure those mice to the corporate cheese. And in return for delivering its most captive audience, the television industry reaped no less than 25 percent of its annual profit from children’s video.
Nowhere else on TV is the medium more the message, and the programming so much wrapping around the huckster’s package. To watch kidvid is to be engulfed in a tide of sugary glop — Kit Kat chocolate bars, Starburst Fruit Chews, Charms’s Blow Pops, Fruit Stripe gum, Moonstones and Honeycombs. The look of kidvid is that of a mouth doomed to dental catastrophe.
What about the shows that interrupt the sales spiels? Reform is fleetingly visible. Those mindless cartoons now make up less than half of the kidvid schedule. And some of the newer shows, such as CBS’s “Ark II” and “Fat Albert,” gently weave in benign messages: international brotherhood, the perils of smoking and drugs and the joys of facing up to bullies.
Of late, the networks’ news departments have classed up the act. ABC’s “Animals Animals Animals” is a sort of peewee “60 Minutes” with a zoological theme. CBS’s periodic “In The News” introduces its audience to such adult concerns as environmental pollution and bankrupt school systems.
Spunky: And then there is “Muggsy.” This new NBC series about an orphaned teenage white girl adrift in an inner-city slum realistically deals with growth pains that afflict all races. Recently, Muggsy straightened out a black youngster who was being mercilessly harassed by his super-cool friends for joining the Boy Scouts. “Why you jivin’ around with those honkies?” demanded one tormentor. Sensitively played by 13-year-old Sarah MacDonnell, who has more freckles than Sissy Spacek, Muggsy is spunky, vulnerable and — unlike the polyethylene Disney clones who populate most of kidvid — altogether real.
Unfortunately, the rest of children’s video has matured woefully little since the days when Howdy Doody flashed his bicuspids. NBC’s “Big John, Little John” stereotypes parents as incorrigible klutzes, while the network’s “Speed Buggy” is nothing but a weekly lesson in reckless driving.
There are even kiddie game shows to instill avarice early. On Metromedia’s “Guess Your Best,” the audience of moppets screams in a “Let’s Make a Deal” frenzy as its panelist peers compete for AMF sports equipment and Panasonic tape recorders. “Kids are people too… wackadoo, wackadoo,” warbles the show’s unctuous emcee.
The schlock depths, however, are reached by “The Krofft Supershow.” With a stupefyingly silly music called Kaptain Kool and the Kongs acting as host, this one-hour ABC adventure series focuses on Dr Shrinker, a mad scientist who reduces his victims to 6-inch miniatures. The quality of the special effects would draw boos at a student film festival. The series also features two female magazine reporters who, when evildoers appear, transform themselves into Electra Woman and Dyna Girl outfitted in costumes apparently picked up at a Woolworth’s post-Halloween sale.
When last observed, the superheroines had been ensnared by Glitter Rock, an epicene Elton John type who sported a green Afro coiffure set off by a spangled body stocking. Perhaps this show’s most heinous crime is that each episode costs nearly $200,000 to produce.