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Kids and the lure of the tube. The decades-long struggle over what children see on TV - and how to control it - has lately focused on a bill to limit commercials.

``It's a finger in the dike'' against a flood of commercialism, says children's TV activist Peggy Charren. It's Big Brotherism! claims law professor James R. Adams.

Either way, it's a bill passed recently by the United States House of Representatives and designed to regulate something kids spend more time on than any other waking activity: television.

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Beginning Jan. 1, 1990, the bill's key features would:

Put a lid on how much commercial time kids' TV shows can carry: 12 minutes per hour on weekdays and 10 on weekends.

Tell TV station owners that their service to the special needs of kids will be considered when license-renewal time rolls around.

Sound innocuous enough? Well, this bill is the contentious tip of an issue-heavy iceberg that has floated unpredictably through public-policy waters for decades. The law would be the first to deal specifically with issues surrounding what children view when they wake up Saturday morning or get home from school.

That subject forms TV history's version of the Hundred Years' War, an ideological struggle reaching back to the '60s between reformers and pro-industry forces: What is broadcasting's duty to young viewers? How many ``informational'' shows should they be getting? How many commercials? What kind of programming?

With lawsuits, lobbying, and petitions to the FCC, grass-roots groups have long waged a guerrilla campaign against what they see as a cozy partnership between big broadcasting and its supposed regulatory watchdog, the Federal Communications Commission. The sore points used to be things like the way some children's TV hosts moved seamlessly into the role of pitchman.

Now that this bill is with the Senate Commerce Committee, the dissension is over whether broadcasting needs a firm hand - well, semi-firm - when it comes to the special interests of children. Guidelines limiting commercials or calling for ``informational'' kids' TV - some of them the hard-won fruit of bitter regulatory battles - were largely wiped out in 1984 as a part of the Reagan era's hands-off policy. Some stations still informally try to limit commercials on kids' TV, but after nearly eight years of video laissez faire, there's an ``anything goes'' atmosphere.

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Actually, Saturday-morning viewership has been dropping off, according to recent ratings - although some feel a new method of measurement may explain this. But the three commercial networks currently carry some about hours of commercial-laden, sci-fi-fantasy cartoons on Saturday morning - some of them actually starring toys for sale in stores. Elsewhere, commercial TV offers game shows and a few dramas about how to grow up.

By the time viewers do grow up (to age 18), all this viewing adds up to some 15,000 hours. So even if it's much too watered down for some people, proponents say, the law is needed as a formal and perhaps ominous reminder to station owners about their duty - under the Communications Act of 1934 - to broadcast ``in the public interest.''

That public includes children, and at the moment they're not being served with creative programs and controls on commercials. This was the message, during House Telecommunications Subcommittee hearings, from the sizable list of groups lined up in favor of the bill - like the National Education Association, the National PTA, and a coalition of politicians.

But it's a message contested by broadcast, advertising, and some commercial interests. Even if they view its present form as tactically acceptable, they testified against the bill and are on record as opposing it.

``This is a legislative statement that, when it comes to commercial speech, children are different from adults,'' says Ms. Charren, head of Action for Children's Television, which began life as a gadfly effort in her living room 20 years ago and is now the most listened-to group of its kind.

``It says to broadcasters, you can't get away with serving just those very tall people with lots of discretionary money,'' she says. ``You have to serve the little people, too - the children.''

But they're already being served!, broadcasters reply.

``People think of children's programming as Saturday morning, but it's not necessarily that,'' says Steve Miller of the Television Information Office, an industry group. ``A lot of prime time is family-oriented, and children watch with their parents.''

A recent study by the A.C. Nielsen ratings firm strikingly confirms his point. For kids aged 2 through 11, it found not one cartoon among the eight top-rated shows. ``The Cosby Show,'' in fact, was the one most viewed by children.

``Broadcasters could not stay in business if they did not show the kinds of programs children want to see,'' says Mr. Miller. ``It doesn't require legislative action.''

But isn't there some obligation to make kids eat their spinach - electronically speaking - to supplement the diet of candy they're now getting?

Let market forces provide this, broadcasters respond. The system has poured money into the field, creating innumerable new series, and the costs are skyrocketing. Putting a cap on commercials would be killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

As evidence, Miller points to magazine shows like NBC's ``Main Street,'' which sometimes tackle tough issues facing young people. ``Children are not as interested as before in the action type of animated programs,'' he says. ``Cartoons are more `pro-social' than in the past.''

``Pro-social'' is a generic, infinitely adaptable label coined in the '70s. It means cartoon characters who speak of brotherhood, fair play, and sometimes even toss in little axioms about drugs and other evils. This kind of talk in the mouths of animated figures may startle anyone familiar with the old days of manic cartoons and their semi-comic mayhem.

``You don't inculcate those values by having characters shoot at each other for 20 minutes and then adding `Say no to drugs' at the end,' says Charren. ``It's a band-aid. What's missing is wonderful children's writers doing wonderful programming. Everybody should be trying to create the most excellent programs they can, ones that could be award submissions.''

Will this bill encourage that? Ironically, some of the loudest ``nays'' come from the ranks of reformers themselves. It's a fig leaf to make continued commercial abuse of children appear more acceptable, they say: Look at the holes! The bill doesn't include the long-sought goal of requiring stations to air at least some kind of informational programming for kids - even an hour a day. That was lobbied out. And it doesn't even reduce commercials, because they already average less than the bill's limits.

Broadcasters are quick to agree. They point to a study by the National Association of Broadcasters showing 8 minutes, 38 seconds per hour of commercials on the networks and most independent stations.

But the NAB figures are averages, which can be dangerously reassuring - something discovered by the man who drowned in a lake with an average depth of two feet. Bill-backers point to the much higher levels - up to 14 minutes per hour on some Saturday-morning shows - found in a study by Dale Kunkel of the University of California, Santa Barbara. It shows that kids can find themselves drowning in commercials whose numbers appear reasonable when averaged out.

Another sore point for some activists: The bill lacks any ban on ``toy-length commercials'' - cartoons like ``Transformers,'' created by toymakers and featuring the toys themselves. How can a toothless law like this one stop such abuse? they ask.

It shouldn't, a former activist replies. In the early '80s, law professor James R. Adams worked to get certain cereal commercials on kids' shows off the air. He thought the cereals were harmful and the ads misleading.

``It was something over which parents couldn't exercise much control,'' says Professor Adams, of the University of the Pacific in Sacramento, Calif. ``Those kids got sort of brainwashed. After the damage was done, there was no real way you could get at cerealmakers. It was like trying to get at cigarettemakers today.

``But now we have better labels, so I'd be opposed to banning cereal commercials. And today if you have an unsafe toy, the manufacturer is legally responsible. With cereal, it was a necessary interference. You could prove they harmed kids. But with these toys, you cannot prove there's anything wrong, and I don't like this kind of government interference.''

But for Charren, ``This bill is infinitely better than nothing. I know how hard it was to get this language, and I hope that no effort to `improve' it will do it in. That would give our opponents an excuse to try to kill it.

``With this bill,'' she adds in a rising tone, ``we're saying stations have to serve the interest of kids. And if they don't, the public can scream.''

As a founding member of kids' TV activism, Charren will undoubtedly be one of principal screamers.

Tomorrow: The battle over commercials.

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