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Peggy Charren dies at 86; tireless advocate for quality children's TV

Peggy Charren founded the highly influential Action for Children's Television in 1968

Critics of Peggy Charren, a tireless activist for quality children's television, accused her of hating TV.

But Charren, who founded the highly influential Action for Children's Television in 1968 to combat "wall-to-wall monster cartoons," said it was just the opposite.

"People who don't think something has any value at all usually don't spend time trying to fix it," she told the Los Angeles Times in 1983. "What we're saying is that this can be a wonderful, magical box, particularly for children — and isn't it a shame that it isn't."

Charren, 86, died Thursday at an assisted living facility in Dedham, Mass., near Boston. She had been suffering from vascular dementia, according to the Sugarman Sinai Memorial Chapel of Providence, R.I., which issued the death announcement.

ACT was credited with getting Congress to pass the landmark Children's Television Act of 1990, which set required minimums for how much educational programming stations had to offer on a weekly basis.

Charren, who headed ACT for its entire existence, was described as unrelenting but also as a person of wit and charm who called high-ranking officials "pumpkin" as a term of endearment and knew how to get quoted in news accounts.

"My tombstone," she said to the Chicago Sun-Times in 1995, "will probably say: 'She was a good sound bite.'"

William Kennard, who was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission during the Clinton administration, told the Boston Globe in 1998, "When the history of public-interest advocacy in telecommunications is written, Peggy Charren will be a legend."

She was born March 9, 1928, in New York to politically left-wing parents who "instilled in us the sense that you worried about people who couldn't make it," she said in a 1992 USA Today interview.

Her uncle was screenwriter Sidney Buchman, whose credits include "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." She took pride that he refused to name names of possible Communist sympathizers during the Hollywood witch hunts of the 1950s.

Charren graduated from Connecticut College in 1949 with a bachelor's degree in English. After working at a television station in New York, she started several businesses in the 1950s and '60s, including an art gallery and a service that organized book fairs in New England schools.

Her TV programming crusade was sparked by watching cartoons with her daughter. Appalled by the lack of quality alternatives, she gathered a few friends in her home to discuss what they could do about it.

Forming ACT in 1968, they began a grass-roots campaign that quickly gained traction. Using a grant to open an office and hire a small staff, ACT pushed to get out its message, not only about the programming but also the heavy advertising that went with it.

In speeches and other public appearances, Charren urged parents to watch TV with their children and then send letters to federal agencies. The message struck a note nationwide.

By the time of an ACT gathering in 1980, it had thousands of members. Speakers at the event included the secretary of Education, the surgeon general, an NBC executive and TV writer-producer Norman Lear. With just the threat of tighter regulations, ACT had already gotten broadcast networks to cut advertising time on Saturday morning programs, halt advertising of sugar-coated vitamins for children and ban show hosts from making the advertising pitches.

The push for legislation took another decade, after which Charren closed down ACT, saying the bulk of its work was done and it was time for other, larger organizations — such as the PTA — to be the watchdogs.

Still, Charren spoke out against programmers and advertisers when she felt they were trying to circumvent the rules. She in particular criticized shows tied to toys and other products, which she felt were thinly disguised 30-minute ads.

Adult viewers would not put up with it, she said. "Soap opera plots," she told The Times in 1983, "do not revolve around the virtues of Tide versus All."

Charren is survived by her husband, Stanley, of Dedham; daughters Deborah Charren of Northampton, Mass., and Sandi Moquin of Feeding Hills, Mass.; sister Barbara Korstvedt of Redondo Beach; six grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

david.colker@latimes.com

Twitter: @davidcolker

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