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New Children's Network: All Commercials, All the Time

By Christopher Gildemeister


Recently, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a Boston-based advocacy group urging responsible behavior by advertisers in programming aimed at children, complained to the Federal Communications Commission about Zevo-3, a new cartoon program scheduled to premiere October 11 on the kid-centered cable network Nicktoons. Zevo-3 will feature characters based on Skechers, a brand of children's sneakers. The complaint stated that the half-hour cartoon violates the FCC's requirement that there be a clear distinction between commercial content and programming matter in the course of a single show. 


But if Zevo-3 is the source of legitimate concern for parents, what then can be said about "The Hub," a new cable network set to debut on Sunday, October 10 – a network aimed at viewers ages 2-12 and ENTIRELY DEVOTED to airing glorified toy and game commercials?


Previously known as Discovery Kids, the network premiered in October 1996 and was devoted to educational programming for children, much of it with a specific twist to make the shows of particular interest to kids. Programs about animals (particularly dinosaurs), nature, and science predominated. But last year, a half-interest in the network was acquired by global toy manufacturing giant Hasbro, which also runs its own entertainment production studio. Renamed "The Hub," the network will be shown in 60 million homes when it launches its toy-based programming. Unlike other youth-oriented networks like Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, which are primarily aimed at older children and young teens, The Hub is targeting its programming at preschoolers in the morning and children aged 6-12 in the afternoon.


Yet it is the programming planned for The Hub which should be of greatest concern to parents. In addition to R.L. Stine's The Haunting Hour (from the author of Goosebumps, a children's line of suspense novels), The Hub will show programs based wholly or in part on domestic and foreign children's toy or book lines. Announced toy-and-game-based programming will include The Transformers, Transformers: Prime, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, G.I. Joe: Renegades, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Strawberry Shortcake's Berry Bitty Adventures, Pound Puppies, Twisted Whiskers Deltora Quest, Pictureka, In the Night Garden, Batman, Batman Beyond, The WotWots, Clue, and Family Game Night, a live-action game show that will feature families playing Hasbro games such as Monopoly, Scrabble and Cranium. The network will also show The 99, a superhero cartoon based on the precepts of Islamic religion.


Concerns about the influence of TV commercials on children were first raised in the 1970s; but after deregulation in the 1980s, a flood of toy-related a series of cartoons based on toy lines flooded the airwaves. As a result the Children's Television Act was passed in 1990. The Act was intended both to promote the use of television as an educational tool, and to help protect children from being overly influenced by commercials or programs about toys. But given the way television networks ignore decency laws, it should come as no surprise that they are equally willing to evade the spirit, if not the letter, of laws intended to protect children from commercial exploitation. For example, broadcasters often claim that toy-based cartoons fulfill the requirement that stations air three hours per week of "educational and informative" programming for children.


The Children's Television Act requires that children's programming have no more than 12 minutes of commercial time per hour Monday through Friday.  The Hub has stated that it will only sell 10 1/2 minutes of ads an hour throughout the week; but considering most of the network's programs are basically commercials to begin with, this claim is utterly disingenuous. The Hub partner Hasbro is also in talks with its chief rival, toy company Mattel, to buy time on the network. Says The Hub's Senior Vice-President of Advertising Sales, Brooke Goldstein, "Toy companies are out there to sell product, and we're going to get eyeballs and steal share from [rival networks]. Just from a business perspective, it feels like it would be a disservice not to create partnerships."


Such a partnership would not only "sell product," it would also help The Hub with commercial placement during its programs. By law, a commercial for a particular product cannot be shown during a program based on that same product – for example, ads for Transformers toys cannot be shown during the cartoon The Transformers, and the same applies to other toy brands owned by Hasbro. But by recruiting Mattel to advertise on the network, advertising to complementary toy brands can be done. For example, Mattel's toy Polly Pocket could be advertised during My Little Pony. "If you're trying to reach girls 3 to 5 and you have another brand that goes after that audience, [you] can own that property," Ms. Goldstein said.


Every parent knows how powerful and pervasive an influence TV has on children. A simple trip to a grocery store can turn into an endless series of pleadings for specific brands of breakfast cereals or snack foods; and TV-fueled desires for toys and games are even stronger. Parents do not need the additional pressure this network will apply; nor do they need to have a portion of their monthly cable or satellite subscription fees go to support a network designed solely to sell toys and games to their children. More importantly, children do not need an entire network devoted to brainwashing them into demanding yet more goods many parents can scarcely afford. Most of all, it is tragic that a network previously devoted to providing children with education, and teaching them that learning can be fun, should exploit youngsters' curiosity and innocence by viewing them merely as consumers.  

TV Trends: This column was compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff.


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