Dr. Toon: When Reagan Met Optimus Prime
In the world of animated children's programming, free enterprise and Federal regulations were not always the best of friends. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was often called upon to enforce regulations concerning the amount and nature of advertising that could be aired during programs aimed specifically at children. The FCC sometimes partnered with the National Assn. of Broadcasters (NAB) in order to ensure that commercials did not overwhelm television broadcasting.
From 1946, with the publication of its Blue Book(a document limiting commercial airtime) until 1983, the FCC did a fairly good job at it, despite broadcasters who occasionally figured out ways to flaunt the code. In 1963, the FCC lost a key battle against the broadcasters, and with it the ability to make or enforce any rules related to number or length of commercials. It was finally decided in 1974 that the FCC could enforce regulations that kept advertising on any sort of TV program to a maximum of sixteen minutes per hour.
Still, loopholes remained, and the FCC was sometimes called to task by public watchdog groups who pointed out the abuses in the system. Perhaps the most vigilant group was Actions for Children's Television (ACT) founded in 1968 by Evelyn Sarson and Peggy Charen. Boston-based ACT would eventually have 20,000 members and a half-million dollar operating budget, but it was still a grass-roots organization when it took on Romper Room as its first target. This popular preschool program advertised its own branded line of toys, pitched by the show's host. ACT threatened to turn the matter over to the FCC unless local TV station WHDH made the program conform to current regulations. WHDH backed down, and ACT had its first victory.
During the 1970s ACT tried to get advertising banned from children's broadcasting altogether, but reached a compromise with the NAB in 1973 that limited advertising to twelve minutes per hour. ACT then began a campaign to have advertising banned from all programming aimed at preschoolers. The activist group challenged the broadcasters on many other fronts regarding programming content. In short, ACT was a force to be reckoned with whenever the group felt that the FCC was not enforcing regulatory standards. Unfortunately, Sarson and Charren were about to run up against a force far greater than a recalcitrant TV station -- the 40th President of the United States.