Peggy Charren, Children’s TV Crusader, Dies at 86

January 28, 2015

By BRUCE WEBER

January 23, 2015

Peggy Charren, whose advocacy of higher-minded television programming for children took the issue to government agencies and the halls of Congress and led to landmark legislation, died on Thursday at her home in Dedham, Mass. She was 86.

The precise cause was uncertain, but she had had vascular dementia for many years, her daughter Deborah Charren said.

An inveterate cajoler, persuader, petitioner, testifier, public speaker and letter writer, Ms. Charren was  “the principal defender of children’s television in America” and “a conscience sitting on the shoulder of every commercial broadcaster,” Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and a longtime friend of Ms. Charren’s, told The Boston Globe after her death.

She took up her crusade in the 1960s, when she was rearing two young daughters in a Boston suburb and was frustrated by what she saw on television for them — rampant advertising for toys and sugary cereals and, as she once put it, “wall-to-wall monster cartoons.”

Ms. Charren, an art and literature lover who had operated a gallery and run a business that held book fairs for children, was a founder and president of Action for Children’s Television, or ACT, whose first meeting was held in her Newton living room in 1968.

Seizing on a clause in the Federal Communications Act of 1934 that assigned broadcasters on the public airways a responsibility to tend to the public interest, ACT set about raising money and became a grass-roots force for change. The organization began pestering lawmakers, regulatory agencies and broadcast corporations to help educate children and not pander to them — to treat them as future contributors to society and not as just another consumer market.

The organization grew from a few women in a living room — they were typically referred to in early news reports as housewives — to a potent organization of more than 10,000 members.

By 1970, the group had won a petitioning campaign to reinstate “Captain Kangaroo” on a Boston station that had replaced it with another show. Members, all or nearly all women, met with the Federal Communications Commission and testified before the Senate subcommittee on communications.

Though they were rebuffed in their first attempts to meet with executives at NBC and ABC, they did get a meeting at CBS with the senior vice president for programming, Michael Dann. He told The New York Times that their suggestions were “among the most constructive and logical I have heard.”

Six months later, Mr. Dann resigned from CBS and took a 75 percent pay cut to become vice president of the Children’s Television Workshop, producers of a popular new show on public television called “Sesame Street.”

Led by Ms. Charren, ACT also persuaded the National Association of Broadcasters to reduce the amount of commercial time on children’s shows. It also persuaded networks to stop the practice of having children’s shows shill for the products of advertisers.

In 1974, the F.C.C. issued a Children’s Television Policy Statement, which made explicit the broadcasters’ responsibility to put “educational and informational” programming on the air.

The guidelines were not laws, however, and after Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, his distaste for regulation undid much of ACT’s progress. The Federal Trade Commission called a halt to an investigation, begun in 1978, into advertising on children’s television, and the F.C.C. stopped pushing for more quality programming for children.

“A marketplace approach simply doesn’t work for children,” Ms. Charren said in 1983.

“Children’s television can never be profitable because most of the people who watch it are very short, very young and have very small allowances.”

She added: “Broadcasters will deliver as little service to children as they can get away with, because children are demographically unattractive to advertisers. During the ’70s, there was always at least the threat that if the networks didn’t do something for kids, the regulatory agencies would step in. Now, under Reagan, there isn’t even the threat.”

Ms. Charren’s calls for regulation drew criticism from some quarters. Animators, in particular, accused her of advocating censorship. She was adamant in her defense, however, saying that ACT never asked for a show to be taken off the air. When cable television began showing racier fare, she accepted that pornography was going to be available and promoted the idea that cable operators be required to provide users with lockout devices to block unwanted content. Her position was that there ought to be more programming, better programming and a diversification of it.

For Ms. Charren and ACT, the 1980s were an unending lobbying campaign that ended in victory. In 1990, Congress passed the Children’s Television Act, establishing standards for children’s television, limiting the number of advertising minutes permitted during a show, and mandating that stations document that they “served the educational and information needs of children” before they could have their licenses renewed.

Ms. Charren was born Peggy Sandelle Walzer on March 9, 1928, in Manhattan. Her father, Maxwell, was a furrier. Her mother, the former Ruth Rosenthal, was a pianist who gave up a potential concert career to raise a family. Peggy graduated from Hunter College High School and, in 1949, Connecticut College in New London.

She worked for a time in television, at WPIX in New York, before marrying Stanley Charren, a mechanical engineer who became an energy expert and entrepreneur, in 1951.

They moved to Providence, R.I., where she opened an art gallery, and subsequently to the Boston area, where she started a company, Quality Book Fairs, that specialized in presentations for children.

Her initial ideas for improvements in children’s television involved putting books and the reading experience on the air.

“My mother loved books, and she loved libraries,” Deborah Charren said. “And she felt TV should be more like a library, with a variety of offerings.”

In addition to her daughter Deborah, Ms. Charren is survived by her husband; a sister, Barbara Korstvedt; another daughter, Claudia Moquin, known as Sandi; six grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

In 1991, the year after the Children’s Television Act was passed, Ms. Charren was given a Peabody Award for her public service. In 1995 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton. ACT dissolved in 1992.

“We’ve done what we set out to do,” Ms. Charren said at the time. “And it’s going to take some time to see if it’s working. This is something that the local communities should be doing. We don’t want laws mandating good programs or censorship. We want the communities to tell broadcasters what’s missing.”

Originally published by The New York Times