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Interactive television sparks a hot debate. Is `Captain Power' leading young viewers into a murky future?

WHEN Captain Power faces the evil hordes of Count Dread, he chants ``Power on!'' pokes his chest, and explodes into an armored, robot-like character ready for anything the count can throw at him. But the Mattel-created super warrior would have a tougher time dealing with the salvos aimed at ``Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future'' by critics of children's television.

During the week leading up to the program's debut last Saturday, lawmakers in Washington were holding hearings on legislation to limit the amount of commercial time allowable in children's programming.

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Television executives and toymakers were blasted by witnesses for dishing up product-related Saturday morning kids' programs that are essentially 30-minute-long commercials. The Federal Communications Commission was blasted for allowing it.

These critics see Captain Power as yet another leap in the wrong direction - a leap, in this instance, into ``interactive'' TV.

``Interactive,'' in terms of Captain Power, means that youngsters watching the show can aim toy jet fighters (costing about $35) at the bad guys on their home television screens and tally up ``hits.''

Sound rather irresistible to a generation of children brought up on video games, fast-paced action, and computer gimmickry?

That's what Mattel, Landmark Entertainment Group, creator of the Captain Power story, and stations carrying the show are banking on.

``It's really postured as a fun, exciting, state-of-the-art technology, a whole new dimension of fun and entertainment,'' says Mattel spokesman Mark Beal. His company has readied a new line of plastic action figures and weaponry to go with the show.

There's no question kids will find the show attractive, says Peggy Charren, head of Action for Children's Television. But a peculiar problem with interactive entertainment like Captain Power is that it excludes poorer children, because their families can't afford the costly toys that go with the show, Ms. Charren points out.

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``It's remarkably unfair, the poor child couldn't participate,'' she says. ``But the problem isn't Captain Power ... it's that when this works, Mattel and Hasbro will do it with all their toys. It's going to take over, and when educational shows work the same way, then you really have a problem with the exclusion of poor kids.''

She envisions preschool children in their living rooms using hand-held gadgets to answer the ``Sesame Street'' quiz, ``One of these things is not like the other.'' Perhaps television sets will at some point come equipped with an attached interactive gimmick. ``But if the joy stick or whatever is not available to everyone,'' says Charren, ``it's not a fair use of a system [the public airwaves] that's licensed to serve everyone.''

Another issue is the violence of the Captain Power show - and the ability of children equipped with the interactive toys to actually take part in that violence, in a sense. The battles between the Soldiers of the Future and Count Dread's mechanical weirdos are spectacular, a big jump from the jerky animation found on many Saturday morning action shows. This mix of live actors and animated war machines is reminiscent of the ``Star Wars'' movies.

Lumping Captain Power together with other recent violence-packed TV offerings, Thomas Radecki, research director of the National Coalition on Television Violence, says, ``There is nothing in the past that is anywhere near as intensely violent and sadistic, as gung-ho pro-war in its message to children, as the current wave of toy-based cartoons.... This year Mattel will indeed be training the `Soldiers of the Future.'''

That assertion, of course, remains open to debate. Experts continue to differ over the degree to which exposure to violence on television shapes the actions and outlooks of children.

On another issue, Brian Stonehill, an English professor at Pomona College in California and a close observer of telecommunications trends, notes that interactive shows `a la Captain Power are definitely not ``a step forward for people to take control of what they watch. It tends to make them more passive rather than active - the TV has to be on to make you act fully.'' But there are technologies coming along that could enhance such control, Dr. Stonehill says.

Prime among these, he says, is the ``interactive videodisc.'' This device, somewhat like a compact audio disc, uses lasers to read information. ``It allows branches and choices, with the screen asking you questions and answering them.'' He sees expansive educational possibilities through this technology, which is just becoming commercially available.

``I'm hoping that the controversy over the Captain Power business will get people thinking about what interactivity could really do, and maybe start people looking at this disc technology,'' says Stonehill.

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