Education

Peggy Charren, Advocate for Children’s Television, Dies at 86

By Mark Walsh — January 26, 2015 3 min read
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Peggy Charren, a tireless advocate whose work pushing for more and better educational television programming for children began with a 1968 meeting of parents in her suburban Boston home, has died.

Ms. Charren, who was 86 and suffering from vascular dementia in recent years, died Jan. 22 at her home in Dedham, Mass., The Boston Globe reported.

She began her efforts for better programming at a time when the three broadcast networks had limited children’s lineups, mostly dominated by Saturday morning cartoons. She helped create and led a nonprofit group called Action for Children’s Television, and the diminutive Ms. Charren was soon seeking meetings to browbeat reluctant network television executives.

Even as the rise of cable television channels provided more programming options for young viewers in the 1980s, Ms. Charren and her group lobbied Congress to require broadcast licensees to provide a minimum amount of educational television per week.

The campaign culminated in the Children’s Television Act of 1990, a compromise measure that did not go as far as Ms. Charren had hoped, but that limited the number of commercials that could air during children’s shows and encouraged stations to air programming specifically designed to educate children.

President George H.W. Bush, who had First Amendment concerns about the measure’s requirements on broadcasters, allowed the bill to become law without his signature.

The Federal Communications Commission was initially lax in its enforcement of the law, and, in the first year after the measure took effect, some stations contended that shows such as “The Jetsons,” “G.I. Joe,” and “Leave it to Beaver” met the educational-programming mandate.

A New Orleans station, in a compliance filing with the FCC, listed this “educational” description of a “Leave It to Beaver” episode: “Eddie misunderstands Wally’s help to girlfriend, Cindy, and confronts Wally with his fist. Communication and trust are shown in this episode.’'

Ms. Charren was not amused. “It took five years for this bill to happen,” she told Education Week. “This is what they meant?’'

The FCC in 1995 clarified what constituted an educational program, though the commission could not come to agreement on the amount of such programming that stations had to air.

Ms. Charren and her group were also concerned about advertising to children, including cartoons during the 1980s that were really program-length advertisements for toys, as well as emerging efforts to reach children in school with commercial messages.

When the media entrepreneur Christopher Whittle first proposed his ad-supported Channel One classroom news show in 1989, Ms. Charren told Education Week, “This is something that school systems should fight tooth and nail. This is the first time I have seen commercialization of education so blatantly.”

In 1992, Ms. Charren announced that Action for Children’s Television would disband, in part because it had achieved the goal of passing the children’s TV law, and in part because larger organizations such as the National PTA and the American Academy of Pediatrics had stepped their advocacy on such issues.

“They are as competent to complain about abuses as I am,” Ms. Charren said at the time.

She became a visiting scholar at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, among other pursuits. But she didn’t hesitate to continue to speak up on children’s TV issues.

In 2005, then-U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings expressed reservations about an episode of the public television show “Postcards from Buster,” featuring two Vermont families headed by lesbian couples. The show was funded in part by an Education Department grant.

Ms. Spellings said many parents would not want their young children exposed to the “lifestyles” portrayed in the episode. PBS decided not to distribute the episodes, but the show’s producer, public station WGBH in Boston, aired it and distributed it to stations that wanted to air it.

Ms. Charren, who was a board member of WGBH at the time, told Education Week that she was worried that the controversy signaled that the Education Department wanted to keep families and children from viewing shows that made children feel good about themselves.

“The ‘Buster’ episode was doing what it was mandated to do,” she said.

Ms. Charren was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995, by President Bill Clinton. Her survivors include her husband, Stanley, and her two daughters, six grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.

The Globe recounted that in 1998, one of its reporters asked the ever-quotable Ms. Charren what her tombstone might read. Her reply: “She was a soundbite.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.

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