Children's television mourns a moose
The simple-minded, good-hearted cartoon moose and his friends will make their last appearance on network television Sept. 11. They are being erased from NBC's fall schedule due to low ratings.
While no one argues that the wacky Bullwinkle cast exactly belongs on Sesame Street when it comes to children's programming, at least one media watchdog sees the show's cancellation as part of a series of recent defeats for children's television.
'' 'Bullwinkle' existed on many levels, like Alice in Wonderland,'' argues Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television, a Newton, Mass.-based group that monitors children's TV. ''It had humor and puns and interesting characters. It was as much fun for adults as for children. It's hard (for a program) to reach across many audiences, and Bullwinkle was able to do it.''
What worries Ms. Charren and others is that diversity in children's programming has nearly disappeared.
''Saturday morning TV today is like the comic-book shelf in a children's library,'' she says. ''There's nothing wrong with comic books. You can even learn to read from them. But we're letting those who run network TV say, 'We don't need a children's library. The comic shelf is enough.' ''
While critics of children's programming may find it hard to rally around the Bullwinkle show with its puns, offbeat humor, and light-hearted pokes at government and TV itself, they also point to the cancellation of ''30 Minutes'' (CBS), ''Special Treat'' (NBC), and ''Animals, Animals'' (ABC) - all children's shows that won critical acclaim, if not wide audiences.
''We are asking for diversity,'' says Ms. Charren. ''There's not enough choice in children's programming. For example, there's not a single network program for children Monday through Friday.''
In July, the National Association of Broadcasters bowed to a Justice Department antitrust suit and is expected to remove its self-imposed restrictions on children's programs in mid-September. Among these were a ban on children's show hosts appearing in commercials and a limit of 91/2 minutes of commercials per hour on weekends.
''The industry has gotten the message from the Reagan administration: What's good for CBS is good for children,'' Ms. Charren says. ''It's not that letting marketplace forces work is necessarily bad. But the marketplace theory doesn't work with people who have no power, like children.''
Bullwinkle's exit has left Saturday morning television without the art of satire, says Bill Hurtz, who directed many of the more than 200 Bullwinkle segments produced from 1959-64. He sees nothing like it on the network schedules.
''The producers of The Smurfs (currently the No. 1-rated children's cartoon show) are trying to put as much action and appeal in that show as they can. But it's still pretty low-voltage by our standards.''
''Mr. Peabody's Improbable History,'' ''Fractured Fairy Tales,'' ''Dudley Do-Right of the Mounted Police,'' and ''Aesop and Son'' offered Bullwinkle viewers a cockeyed, pun-filled view of history and literature. Between these features ran the central plot: the never-ending battle between Bullwinkle J. Moose and his all-American sidekick, Rocky the Flying Squirrel, and two evil foreign agents, Boris Badanov (complete with Kremlin-issue black topcoat, slouch hat, and an accent reeking of borsch) and Natasha (''Boris, darlink'') Fatale.
The series became an offbeat showcase for the talents of William Conrad, Edward Everett Horton, and Hans Conreid. The show's writers went on to develop and write for long-running comedies like ''The Mary Tyler Moore Show,'' ''All in the Family,'' ''Mork and Mindy,'' and ''Barney Miller.''
After starting on Saturday morning, Mr. Hurtz says, the show was moved briefly to Sunday evening just before ''The Wonderful World of Disney.'' (''Disney, we understand, raised the roof to see this jerky, low-budget, three-drawing show animated in Mexico leading in to them,'' says Hurtz.) It went back to Saturdays and fizzled out in the mid-'60s, only to be revived last year by NBC.
During the interim, the moose and his friends were in syndication, where they gained a cult following with a different audience. ''The syndication people found that college kids used to get up at 6:30 in the morning to watch the show before going to class,'' says Hurtz.
cho ''We've always had this young, hip America following that's stayed with us to this day. Some of them are even starting to creep into the programming on the networks. They suggest that Bullwinkle come back on the air all the time. But when that gets to the higher executives, they say 'Who?' ''
But Hurtz says it would be difficult for a program like Bullwinkle to get on the air today. cho ''We were so unimportant when we went on the air, with these bright guys writing on it. We could almost say anything we wanted because no one paid any attention to us.''
No longer.cho ends ''Recently we developed a special for CBS in which Rocky and Bullwinkle were coaching a football game opposite Boris and Natasha, called the 'Stupor Bowl.' But it was decided by network executives higher up that - you know, Stupor Bowl-Super Bowl. It might be too tricky for the National Football League. So the idea was dropped. . . .''
cho Today Bullwinkle's creator, Jay Ward, makes animated TV ads for a cereal company. ''We're doing fine, earning 10 times as much money as we used to get for Bullwinkle,'' says Hurtz, who still works with Mr. Ward. ''We try to put loving care and full animation into the commercials. Frankly, we're trying to save the lost art of full animation.
''But our first love is getting laughs. We tried to make Bullwinkle funny to ourselves. If the joke about the Kerwood Derby sailed over kids' heads, that's all right. They don't have to get everything. The pictures were enough. . . . And it was never really hideously violent''.
cho ''We never broke the ratings charts, we never went off the meter. Because you've appealed to 5 million or 6 million people over 23 years, that doesn't make you a big success.'' But what those who worked on Bullwinkle did learn, he says, is that ''if you love fun yourself, you find out that's what kids love, too.''