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May 20 2014

The Jewish Woman Who Revolutionized Children’s Television

By at 9:47 am

peggy-charren

Imagine what children’s TV would be like without Peggy Charren. You can’t! Peggy took on the burgeoning television industry of the 1970s and won. She fought to keep advertising out of children’s programs, to keep quality children’s shows on the air, and to place limits on programs designed to sell toys to kids. Some people thought she was in favor of censorship, but Peggy vehemently disagreed: for her, content for children was all about context.

Journalist Janet Beyer tells her story:

The product of a liberal upbringing–Peggy learned union songs and noted, “We belonged, as did a lot of people, to all those organizations that were on McCarthy’s enemies list.”–Peggy majored in liberal arts at Connecticut College, then became film department director at WPIX-TV in New York City. She married and had two kids. At home with her young daughters, she grew concerned over too few educational TV programs for kids and too many violent, toy-focused shows. In 1968, armed with her TV experience and skill for organizing, she founded Action for Children’s Television (ACT), a nonprofit dedicated to diversity in children’s TV choices. Originally a small group of concerned mothers, ACT grew to become a grassroots organization of almost 20,000 volunteers.

Peggy later noted wryly, “I think when it started, we were called ‘housewives’ in every story in the paper, and I never did anything about it. I thought you can only work on one issue at a time… And when we started getting the Washington world to respond to us, people stopped thinking of us as parents. We didn’t stop thinking of us as parents–we had to do both. But we were part of that world of lobbyists and industry that either made changes happen or didn’t.”

Peggy’s insight: that the Communications Act of 1934, which requires users of the broadcast spectrum to serve the public interest, could be leveraged to promote educational TV programs. Thanks to Peggy and ACT, the Children’s Television Act of 1990 required each TV station to do this or risk losing its license. In August 1996, she stood with President Bill Clinton when he announced that the TV industry had finally agreed to abide by stronger rules requiring stations to air at least three hours of quality children’s programming per week.

“We discovered along the way that children’s television was incredibly commercialized, twice as much as adults’,” said Peggy. “We sat with a stopwatch and, lo and behold, children’s television had 16 minutes of ads an hour and adults had nine and a half! You don’t have to be a child advocate to think that’s terrible. So we worked on that and we did get a reduction in the amount of advertising.”

Now a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, Peggy has been honored with a Peabody Award, an Emmy, and even a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Communications for kids today is more complicated than ever, so the conversation continues. It’s a conversation that Peggy started.

Read more about Peggy Charren in her entry by Janet Beyer in “Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia,” from which this introduction is adapted, plus her story in her own words, and discover hundreds of inspiring stories in the Jewish Women’s Archive (where Peggy served on the board 1996-2000): jwa.org.

Jewish Women's Archive

As part of our month-long series dedicated to Jewish American Heritage Month, Kveller and the Jewish Women’s Archive bring to light little-known stories of inspiring, intriguing Jewish American women whose legacies still change our lives today. To explore even more, visit jwa.org.

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