Peggy Charren, Children’s TV Crusader, Dies at 86
By BRUCE WEBERJAN. 22, 2015 Photo Peggy Charren in 1978. She was a founder and president of Action for Children’s Television. Credit Barbara Alper/Getty Images Continue reading the main story Share This Page
Email Share Tweet Save more
Peggy Charren, whose advocacy of higher-minded television programming for children took the issue to government agencies and the halls of Congress and led to landmark legislation, died on Thursday at her home in Dedham, Mass. She was 86.
The precise cause was uncertain, but she had had vascular dementia for many years, her daughter Deborah Charren said.
An inveterate cajoler, persuader, petitioner, testifier, public speaker and letter writer, Ms. Charren was “the principal defender of children’s television in America” and “a conscience sitting on the shoulder of every commercial broadcaster,” Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and a longtime friend of Ms. Charren’s, told The Boston Globe after her death.
She took up her crusade in the 1960s, when she was rearing two young daughters in a Boston suburb and was frustrated by what she saw on television for them — rampant advertising for toys and sugary cereals and, as she once put it, “wall-to-wall monster cartoons.”
Ms. Charren, an art and literature lover who had operated a gallery and run a business that held book fairs for children, was a founder and president of Action for Children’s Television, or ACT, whose first meeting was held in her Newton living room in 1968.
Seizing on a clause in the Federal Communications Act of 1934 that assigned broadcasters on the public airways a responsibility to tend to the public interest, ACT set about raising money and became a grass-roots force for change. The organization began pestering lawmakers, regulatory agencies and broadcast corporations to help educate children and not pander to them — to treat them as future contributors to society and not as just another consumer market.
The organization grew from a few women in a living room — they were typically referred to in early news reports as housewives — to a potent organization of more than 10,000 members.
By 1970, the group had won a petitioning campaign to reinstate “Captain Kangaroo” on a Boston station that had replaced it with another show. Members, all or nearly all women, met with the Federal Communications Commission and testified before the Senate subcommittee on communications.
Though they were rebuffed in their first attempts to meet with executives at NBC and ABC, they did get a meeting at CBS with the senior vice president for programming, Michael Dann. He told The New York Times that their suggestions were “among the most constructive and logical I have heard.”
Six months later, Mr. Dann resigned from CBS and took a 75 percent pay cut to become vice president of the Children’s Television Workshop, producers of a popular new show on public television called “Sesame Street.”
Led by Ms. Charren, ACT also persuaded the National Association of Broadcasters to reduce the amount of commercial time on children’s shows. It also persuaded networks to stop the practice of having children’s shows shill for the products of advertisers.
In 1974, the F.C.C. issued a Children’s Television Policy Statement, which made explicit the broadcasters’ responsibility to put “educational and informational” programming on the air.
The guidelines were not laws, however, and after Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, his distaste for regulation undid much of ACT’s progress. The Federal Trade Commission called a halt to an investigation, begun in 1978, into advertising on children’s television, and the F.C.C. stopped pushing for more quality programming for children.
“A marketplace approach simply doesn’t work for children,” Ms. Charren said in 1983. “Children’s television can never be profitable because most of the people who watch it are very short, very young and have very small allowances.”