Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Important (?) lessons in children's entertainment

Here's the weirdest thing I learned via Wikipedia today.

As you may know, there are those out there who attempt to influence the content of childrens' television.  We call them "parents groups," although many are not comprised of parents, or at least not of folks whose primary interest is as parents.  Study them and you'll find a wide array of agendum at work...and I suspect that, in some cases, their stated goals are far from their real goals.

Nevertheless, they all seek to make kidvid more enriching and redeeming, at least by their definitions, and at the time, they had enough clout to cause the networks to yield.  Consultants were brought in and we, the folks who were writing cartoons, were ordered to include certain "pro-social" morals in our shows.  At the time, the dominant "pro-social" moral was as follows: The group is always right...the complainer is always wrong.

This was the message of way too many eighties' cartoon shows.  If all your friends want to go get pizza and you want a burger, you should bow to the will of the majority and go get pizza with them.  There was even a show for one season on CBS called The Get-Along Gang, which was dedicated unabashedly to this principle.  Each week, whichever member of the gang didn't get along with the gang learned the error of his or her ways.

That's just... I don't even... what?

I assume that this valuable social message also extends to your mother's favorite line about everyone else jumping off a bridge.

So in the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, for some weird reason they were forced to keep contriving situations for Eric, the whiny cavalier, to complain about what the rest of the group was doing... so that they could promote the message by ultimately making him look dumb or suffer in some way.

I recently read (most of) David Sirota's latest book, Back to our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now--Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything.  I enjoyed it, but at the same time, I found it a little excessively paranoid.  Sirota's thesis is that the movies, shows, and all other entertainment that we consumed as kids in the Reagan era was all part of an overarching propaganda machine, pushing various right wing values like nationalism, consumerism, and the notion that all government is part of an evil conspiracy.  In some cases I saw his point, and in others I just felt like it was a big Rorschach test where Sirota was superimposing his framework on everything he could find.

Anyway, I can't make heads or tails of this "the group is always right" thing, which is one case where there seems to have been an actual conspiracy by a specific group of individuals openly trying to give all shows a consistent message.

On a side note, told me today that I should try switching my blog over to their nifty new customizable display format.  So I did, because the group is always right and I don't want to be a complainer.

I haven't spent enough time browsing it to decide if I hate it.  But if you hate it, feel free to let me know.


  1. That's pretty interesting.

    I like the new format btw.

  2. I also thought Sirota's thesis was a bit overblown. Here is a book suggestion for you with a thesis I am finding more illuminating and substantiated:

    I just started it last night so I am not too far in, but the premise is fascinating.

  3. This is perhaps a bit off topic. Indulge me only if you wish.

    Having my first child come into the world 15 months ago has sparked an interest in what is on children’s programming these days. I was surprised to find Sesame Street still going strong but very different from how I remember it. There are many more female characters (with the puppets anyway) and younger more kid relatable puppets as well. There is also a lot of computer animation now.

    PBS, at least, seems to go out of its way to promote inclusive and tolerant messages in all its children’s programming. There is also a fair amount of “what to do” information. Things like what to do when you get lost or other kids exclude you at school, that kind of thing. Otherwise it is mostly educational, like learning to read. No real conformity messages that I have noticed so far.

    Of course PBS is non-profit and may be a poor indicator. I have not had the courage to watch much Sponge-Bob or the like yet.

    Not that I just plunk my infant in front of a TV, it is in moderation and always directly supervised. I have not seen much to be worried about so far though.

    Do you have anything you are willing to broadcast on the interwebs about what your son likes to watch at his age?

  4. John,

    First I have to point out that this "good kids conform" message is 30 years old, as the moral guardians referenced by the post were acting on cartoons in the 80's. IMHO, there are quite a lot of good and even possibly subversive cartoons now. I like Spongebob, believe it or not, and Fairly Odd Parents was another of my favorites. If it's not beneath your pride, I do recommend that you sit down and watch some episodes of both, see what you think.

    Ben's 9, so he's long past the Sesame Street stage, and even a bit past his cartoon watching prime. I raised him on good movies and books, or so I like to think. Ben never really took a shine to Sesame Street anyway, and I can't say I blame him. The show today is, to be direct, not good. It's got some occasional good bits in it, but it didn't weather the death of Jim Henson well IMHO.

    As I see Sesame Street in the old days, it was always The Muppet Show for a younger generation: A witty comedy variety show with a lot of different skits and some educational messages seamlessly mixed in with the conversation. Sesame Street now has a very rigid format. There's something like a 15 minute "story" which attempts to make some kind of ethical point but generally drags out way too long. Some key characters like Cookie and Count have unvarying segments which teach specific things (letters for Cookie, numbers for Count, focusing on one per episode). And the show ALWAYS ends with 20 straight minutes of Elmo, which I think is a terrible idea. No offense to Kevin Clash, who seems like a cool guy in person, but Elmo is an irritating character and should not be expected to carry 2/3 of a show every day.

    To be honest, I spent a lot LESS time worrying about the influence of TV and video games than your average child psychologist would claim is wise. And I feel absolutely happy with that decision. I don't think it killed his imagination or anything, and since I was also there watching the same cartoons and playing the same games much of the time, it was both a good bonding experience and an opportunity to teach him stuff with a common frame of reference.

    Nowadays he's into things like Iron Man, Third Rock from the Sun, and the radio show This American Life. I'm a few years behind the times on entertainment for the little kid demographic, but I repeat my endorsement of Spongebob and Fairly Odd Parents. And, of course, pretty much everything that Pixar has ever done, as long as it's not too scary.

  5. I watched a lot of cartoons in the eighties and I don't recall a conformity being a big message
    , but rather sharing and selflessness. Characters would be shamed for insisting on their way, (burgers). When everyone else wanted pizza.

    I think the Cambrian explosion of morality in kids shows in the 80 s may be due to many factors but here are 2:

    1) tv in the sixties and seventies may have given parents a much closer look into their kids, or at least boys' play. Instead of playing playing "war" or "guns" out of sight, they gravitated to the most violent stuff on tv and this was expressesed in WB cartoons and westerns. I'm sure the addition of a moral explanation for the gore was an attempt to justify this.

    2) many 80 s cartoons were 23 minute commericials. He-man got a 22 minutes of a violent sales pitch for 1 minute of."but we helped the villagers".

    I think sesame street was at itsnbestbwhen the prime directive was education, diversity and social justice were just assumed. Check out the "old school" sesame street DVDs including the 1968 PBS pitch reel. What brilliance. They set the groundbreaking kids show in a gritty dirty poor new york neighborhood populated by lunatics and a man who actually lived in the garbage. But they never made a point about it. It was just the neighborhood. Compare that to the pastel painted foam rubber utopias kids are shown today.

    Whatever, what's the evidence that this stuff influences any thing anyway?