The time is the present. The metal wars are hundreds of years in the future. But the excitement has already begun, in living rooms just like yours."
So goes a promotional video for one of the new "TV-interactive" toys, Mattel's Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. On a television screen, Lord Dread, an ominous Darth-Vader-like demon, looms, his eyes filled with a searing red light, while a boy actor grabs a spaceship-shaped laser gun and zaps the character on the screen.
The technology behind this three-dimensional battle has the toy industry brimming with excitement. After a flat sales year in 1986, companies see a potential boom area in toys like Captain Power, made by Hawthorne, California—based Mattel Inc., and TechForce, made by another California company, Axlon Inc.
The electronic toys, which will be in stores in time for this fall's TV lineup, are activated by light or sound signals transmitted over the airwaves. Responding to the signals, TechForce's grotesque bad guys, called Moto Monsters, move about on the floor and launch their attacks. It's high-tech cops and robbers, with the TV controlling the bad guys and the child—joystick in hand—controlling the good guys. While good and evil square off on the floor, the TV continues with a related cartoon battle.
But in the grown-up world of industry and regulation, a much larger battle is raging. In February, less than a month after these high-tech marvels were unveiled at the industry's largest convention, the New York Toy Fair, a group known as Action for Children's Television (ACT) filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission, the government's TV regulators, to get the shows—and, by implication, the toys—banned. Peggy Charren, indefatigable president of Cambridge, Massachusetts based ACT, has latched onto the TV-interactive toys issue to fuel the latest campaign in her 20-year-old crusade to decommercialize children's programming.
"Shows should not be so tied to a product that they become commercials," Charren says. Her contention? That toy manufacturers have turned children's television into a nauseating stream of 30-minute commercials, all pushing the sale of products on a vulnerable and highly impressionable audience. And shows based on interactive toys become an especially powerful—and insidious—form of advertising, she argues, because kids can't enjoy the shows without owning the toys. What better way to sell $250 worth of merchandise—that's what the TechForce system will cost Mom and Dad—than to create a "must-have" toy? Interactive toys, she claims, will create two classes of children—the haves and the have nots.
Action for Children's Television is not alone in its attack on the new TV-interactive toys. Across the country, other groups have been staging rallies that focus on what they consider the most pernicious aspect of the toys—their violence. In Santa Monica, California, for example, a group calling itself the Los Angeles War Toys Boycott staged a mock nuclear-plant meltdown in February to call attention to what they see as the dangers of violent toys.
"What we're seeing in this country is the most massive and unethical promotion of war as has ever been seen," says Dr. Thomas Radecki, chairman of the National Coalition on Television Violence, based in Champaign, Illinois. The group, which maintains a hit-list of the most violent children's programs, is pushing to get legislation introduced in Congress that would essentially outlaw kids' programs with violent themes. Radecki says that dozens of university studies support his claim that exposure to such violence harms children. And Jerry Rubin, a leader of the Los Angeles group (not the '60s anti-war activist Jerry Rubin), fears that the TV-interactive toys are "a dangerous new direction" and one more example of a wave of militarism that is sweeping the country.
What do toy makers think about all this? Sensitive to attacks on its integrity, the industry is nonetheless careful not to overreact. Jodi Levin, spokeswoman for the Toy Manufacturers of America, says of ACT's Charren, "Peggy has been tearing her hair out about a toy she's never even seen. It's hard to take that seriously."
Still, the industry does take it seriously, and toy makers have seized nearly every opportunity to debate Charren on this issue. Nolan Bushnell, president of Axlon and the man who almost single-handedly launched the video-game phenomenon when he founded Atari back in the early 1970s, argues that the industry is up against a new "Luddism"—those who, like the 19th-century workers who went around bashing machines, are afraid of any and all progress. What Action for Children's Television and the war-toys activists demonstrate is an "absolute white-knuckle fear of technology," he says, which can be even more harmful to kids.
"The responsibility of the toy companies is, first of all, to educate as opposed to tranquilize," Bushnell says. "And then it's to prepare children for the world they will inherit. That means to put as much technology in front of them as we can." What exasperates Bushnell even more is that the toy-Luddites have a blind spot. They are all in favor of banning shows like "G.I. Joe" or "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" because of their obvious product tie. But, wait a minute, doesn't "Sesame Street" also push a line of products? And what about classic characters that millions of Americans cherish? Are we going also to ban Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck?
"If you don't, then it's not fair," Bushnell says. "It's entrenched commercialism versus new commercialism. Where do you draw the line?"
"They've got some bloody nerve, bringing up 'Sesame Street,'" Charren shoots back angrily. Still, the show keeps getting brought up because the toy makers keep accusing Charren of a double standard. Her rationale is based on a program's underlying objective, she says: Is it on the air to sell products or is it on the air to educate and entertain children?
"'Sesame Street' is like the Shirley Temple movies—it's there to teach kids, not to sell those puppets. The end result is not the same," she says. So if "The Flintstones," for example, were developed as a cartoon before any company dreamed up Flintstones vitamins, the television show deserves regulatory immunity. Conversely, if the product came first, any subsequent TV show can and should be indicted for gross commercialism. Is there an appropriate waiting period after which a company may introduce a product? Charren thinks so and offers her choice for a guideline: "Two years—that would be perfectly reasonable." The law, after all, is an arbitrary animal, she says.
Nonsense, says an educator who acted as a consultant to the "He-Man" cartoon show. According to Donald F. Roberts, professor of communications at Stanford University, any popular TV show ends up selling something, including the Olympics and the Super Bowl. Even Sunday morning programs sell the concept of God. Just when companies begin capitalizing on their popularity is beside the point. "It's totally subjective," he says.
And that may be the rub. Because, he says, when you remove the emperor's robe, what you discover is nothing more exciting than a clash of personal values. "Peggy has a very legitimate axe to grind," he says. "What has to be made really clear is that it's axe-grinding. She's making value judgments."
The controversy, it turns out, is less a debate on the merits of children's programming than a scramble for control over what stations broadcast. "They want to blur the boundaries of what is in front of the TV screen and what is in back of the TV screen, and who controls what," says Axlon's Bushnell. "We are the foes of censorship."
Interestingly, that bold assessment meets agreement at the Washington commission charged with determining the outcome of the debate. ACT's petition "smacks of censorship," says Freta Thyden, the Federal Communications Commission attorney assigned to work on issues of toy-related programming.
Thyden is sympathetic to those on both sides who decry the shoddiness and commercialism of children's TV, but her personal response is less sympathetic: "Shut off the TV or get rid of it," she says. "We might, as individuals, want to do something [to improve children's programming]. But who the hell wants the state taking over? This government may not always be here." It's simply not the role of the FCC or government, she contends, to dictate television's content or to supplant the duty parents have in disciplining and educating their children.
Governments do, in fact, change, and the FCC has used its power over programming to censor toy-related shows. In 1969, the agency barred ABC from airing a program based on Mattel's Hot Wheels race cars, which had been on toy-store shelves for a full year. The commission argued that the cartoon was "designed primarily to promote the sale of a sponsor's product, rather than to serve the public either by entertaining or informing it." But in 1984, the agency relaxed its earlier position and allowed another Mattel creation, "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe," to terrorize the airwaves. And in 1985, the FCC flatly refused to hold hearings on product-themed shows.
Nowadays, the regulators are also altogether noninterventionist when it comes to financial deal-carving. TV stations, for example, routinely receive a slice of the profits from toy sales when they broadcast these shows, a practice the FCC has condoned. "We don't see broadcasters as educators," Thyden says. "Broadcasters are business people."
The commission still has its guidelines; it still operates, for example, on the assumption that broadcasters have a special obligation to serve the public interest, and the commission has issued guidelines to govern the relationship between commercials and programs. But in most respects, the FCC remains "very free-market oriented," says Milton Mueller, a former communications analyst for the Cato Institute in Washington. Under chairman Mark Fowler, a free market champion who was appointed in 1981, the FCC moved steadily toward deregulation, and Mueller predicts that the trend is likely to continue even though Fowler left in April. "It's a consensus-and-compromise kind of operation," he says. "So it's likely something will happen. They may do some kind of mild regulation" to appease the critics.
Still, the FCC would probably prefer to have an unhampered marketplace settle the controversy rather than have to rule on the matter. Even if Fowler's successor, Dennis R. Patrick, agrees to hold hearings on TV-interactive toys, the process could take years to unwind.
Meanwhile, market solutions abound; some are already being practiced by the very groups that seek to ban the toys. The Los Angeles anti-war toys group, for example, has seized on one of the oldest and most effective forms of voluntary intervention: the product boycott. And with a flair for gaining media attention, opponents potentially have access to millions of American living rooms with their message "Buy Love, Not War."
But as effective as such techniques can be, "if you want to change something, you need to get legislation passed," Jerry Rubin believes. The charge of censorship barely fazes activists. They see toy makers and television broadcasters as a band of exploiters who prey on an audience of innocents. "Censorship is a toughie," admits the Rev. James Conn, mayor of Santa Monica who "presided" over the Valentine's Day meltdown and a year earlier spoke the eulogy at a war-toys burial ceremony. "I don't believe in censorship," he claims, then tries justify that very practice with the contention that "the market is controlled by people who have a financial interest in it. It's like freedom of speech for those who can afford it," he opines. "I'm not sure that that's not another form of censorship—censorship of the market."
For her part, Charren dismisses charges of censorship with the wave of a hand. "We do not even talk about content," she says. "We want every broadcaster to be required to fulfill his license obligation to serve the public interest. We say, That includes an hour of educational children's programming every day."
To Charren and others, broadcasters and toy makers rightly respond that consumers—the public—will vote with their dollars on whether they like the new toys. "If the consumer doesn't want to buy, trust me, the consumer doesn't buy," says the Toy Manufacturers' Jodi Levin. To support her claim, she points out that sales of action figures, which were a "hot category" during the 1986 Christmas season, have since fizzled out. And Spencer Boise, a vice-president of Mattel, remembers that space-age figures, which his company modeled after the Apollo astronauts and heavily promoted in the early 1970s, never got off the ground in sales.
All of that is not to say that the new TV-interactive toys are destined to flop in a free market. One of the most time honored military toys, G.I. Joe, lost popularity during the Vietnam war, only to resurface 10 years later as the industry's leading seller. Toy makers point to stories like that to underscore their claim that they're only supplying what consumers hanker for.
That includes war toys. Kids seem to have a deep need to play good-guy bad-guy roles and explore issues of morality for themselves. "Take away their toy guns and they still have this: bang, bang," Bushnell says, pointing and cocking his finger. "Can we require our kids not to read the front page when we bomb Khaddafi?"
Just as kids will be kids when it comes to playing with toy guns, so too are they the supreme consumers, quick to switch the TV channel if a show bores them. So Charren's argument that shows have no "stand-alone" value—creating two classes of children, the haves and the have nots—seems ludicrous. Why would any station manager air a TV show with such limited appeal? "I can say as a matter of practicality that if the program is not appealing to all children, it won't be on the air very long," says Dick Hollis, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, based in Washington.
One thing is certain, however. All the hoopla and hullabaloo may be premature. As toy industry analyst David S. Leibowitz, a senior vice president of American Securities Corp. in New York City, is quick to point out, few industries have had so many false starts and quick exits as the toy industry, or been so dependent on the vagaries of consumer taste.
The fate of TV-interactive toys is likely to be decided, as it should be, in the marketplace. "Let's see how the consumer reacts to them," says Leibowitz. "Given a vote of confidence by the consumers when they open their pocketbooks, we'll be able to judge how important they will become."
Deborah Hallberg is a business reporter at the Oakland, California, Tribune.