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Show-length ads: why Johnny wants a Gobot

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The kids love it: fuzzy little Ewoks and Wuzzles, action-packed He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, all coming to life on Saturday morning TV. The toymakers love it: millions of children rushing from the screen to the shop to buy the latest models of characters they've just been watching.

Even the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in its surge toward deregulation, loves it: market forces bubbling away and setting the tone of children's programming.

The subject: half-hour-long animated children's cartoon shows. Produced under the close scrutiny of the toy companies, they star the very toys the companies are promoting -- toys invented, in some cases, primarily to be sold as adjuncts to the program.

Quietly introduced two seasons ago, such shows (labeled ``program-length commercials'' by critics) now threaten to fill up children's TV. This season, according to a comprehensive report in Newsday last February, the three networks are airing 61/2 hours of such programs on Saturday mornings from 8 o'clock to noon.

So far, says Peggy Charren of the nonprofit consumer group Action for Children's Television (ACT), ``more than 40 such shows have been developed by major toy companies from their toy lines,'' including 90 half hours of ``GI Joe,'' 65 half hours of ``Transformers,'' and 65 half hours of ``Thundercats.''

Yet so insidious is this form of propaganda that even industry insiders are beginning to express qualms. It was bad enough to aim 30-second sales pitches at children too young to know that they were being sold. It is reprehensible to subject children to program-length commercials -- designed, as a different FCC warned in 1971, ``primarily to promote the sale of a sponsor's product, rather than to serve the public by either entertaining or informing it.''

And it is inexcusable to have the stations splitting profits 50-50 with the manufacturer -- a plan promoted by the makers of Thundercats, who promised stations reaching (for example) 4 percent of the nation's homes a 2 percent share of the profits of all sales of the toy line. Even Advertising Age, a trade newspaper, has blasted the current trend in an editorial headlined, ``A TV license to steal, from kids.''

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