The Birth of an Advocacy Group: The First Six Years of Action for Children's Television

Article excerpt

This article uses oral history, archival research, and popular and trade publications mostly from the 1960s and the 1970s to tell the story of Action for Children's Television (ACT). An advocacy group started by a group of mothers in Newton, Massachusetts, ACT changed the way that the broadcasting industry and the Federal Communications Commission approached TV programming for children. Policymakers credit the women of ACT with shaping current children's television programming and advertising regulations. Although the group's leadership changed over time, the organisation always maintained the goals it set in the first few months of its existence. With these goals, ACT exemplified the impact that a determined advocacy group can have on government and the television industry.

In the late 1960's, television shows for children were a colorful array of cartoon supcrhcrocs and talking animals.1 On Saturday mornings, anvils and sticks of dynamite continued to foil the likes of Wile E. Coyote and Sylvester the Cat.2Faster than a speeding bullet, kids were glued to "Roger Ramjet," "Marine Boy," and "Aquaman."3 Business Week reported that A.C. Nielscn estimated that 15.6 million children tuned in to these television shows each Saturday morning.4

Though children flocked to them, researchers worried about the shows' contents. During this decade, cognitive psychologist Albert Bandura found that children acted out the violence they viewed on television.5 Educational programs such as "Romper Room" and "Captain Kangaroo" taught children letters and numbers, but they were the exception.6 By and large, broadcasters were airing programs not to positively influence children but to captivate them with colors and music. Once captured, advertisers were free to offer their wares for unsuspecting eyes. During the commercial breaks from these shows, children were bombarded with spots for sugary cereals and plastic toys7 with companies such as Mattel, General Mills, and Kellogg's spending about $70 million in advertising each year. Saturday morning programs alone garnered $20 million in 1969.8 The combination of these advertisements and the poor programming on children's shows created a television "wasteland."9 Action for Children's Television (ACT) worked to change this.

Throughout their work, the founding mothers of ACT-Lillian Ambrosino, Judith Chalfen, Peggy Charrcn, and Evelyn Sarson-made significant contributions to children's television and the overall history of broadcasting. Policymakers credit this organization with shaping present-day children's television programming and advertising regulations. The group's leadership changed over time, but it always maintained the framework that it set in its first years of existence: more educational content and fewer commercials in programs made for children. Although ACT worked to improve children's television from 1968 to 1992, this article addresses what is arguably the most pivotal time for the organization: 1968 to 1974. It is during this period that ACT established its long-time philosophies and strategics that introduced the group to the FCC and the television industry, establishing love-hate relationships that lasted for more than two decades.

The relationship an advocacy group has with regulators has been shown to be based on several factors.10 As Edwin Krasnow's and Lawrence Longley's The Politics of Broadcast Regulation addressed in 1978, the work of advocates are just one of the inputs that results in the regulators' creation of an output." The book created a policymaking model involving the FCC, Congress, the industry, citizen groups, the White House, and the courts, showing that these groups are not independent in the lawmaking process.

Citizen groups speak for the common man and generally create agendas that are designed to serve society's best interests. In Interest Groups, Lobbying, and Policymaking, Norman Ornstein and Shirley Elder said in 1978 that a group's success is based not only on its financial resources but more importantly on the motivation of its followers. …