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KIDS’ TV JUST ONE BIG SELLORAMA

Kid Sell.

Saturday morning is now largely a full-blown marketing explosion, a tool to reach parents through their kids via sophisticated advertising techniques. The kids are no longer an end, but a means to an end. The commercials not only come during the programs and between the programs. The commercials are the programs.

The new syndicated “Thundercats,” for example, began reaching America’s homes this season just as a line of Thundercats miniatures began reaching toy departments.

Ron Powers, media critic for CBS’ “Sunday Morning,” recently explained the process vis-a-vis the syndicated “He-Man” series.

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“He-Man . . . was the pioneer product in this double-barreled marketing breakthrough of just a couple of years ago,” Powers noted, “a breakthrough that promoted charges that kids’ shows were turning into program-length commercials.

“Kids watch this syndicated cartoon series on Saturday mornings,” Powers said, “then urge their parents to go out and buy the He-Man dolls that Mattel . . . has waiting on the store shelves.”

The process is expanding, with some series seemingly developed with an unwavering eye toward off-the-air market potential. What is NBC’s “The Smurfs,” for example, if not a commercial for the over-the-counter Smurfs? And ABC’s new “Ewoks/Droids Adventure Hour” will swell sales for all those “Star Wars” products in the stores.

The product tie-ins are “really hard on parents,” a mother complained recently on “The CBS Morning News.” “You walk into a store and the kids want it all.”

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The process also works in reverse.

A series is sometimes named after a product to exploit that product’s name value rather than increase its sales.

Witness NBC’s new “Gummi Bears,” a cute little Disney animation about six bears named after a popular chewy sugar candy made by more than one company. It’s a given that the producers wouldn’t mind if the candy’s popularity rubbed off on the show.

“The candy is a generic name made by lots of companies, just as jelly beans is a generic name,” said Gary Krisel, in charge of children’s television for Disney. “We did agonize over the name, but it came down to the fact that the bears in the series have nothing to do with the candy.”

Peggy Charren, president of the influential Action for Children’s Television lobby based in Newtonville, Mass., has a different slant. “You have to be nuts,” she said by telephone recently, “to think that the series isn’t going to enhance the sale of the candy, which is sticky sugar that sticks to your teeth.”

Meanwhile, dolls and their many accessories tied to Saturday kids’ series are grossing a reported half-billion dollars annually.

And there’s more.

Saturday morning’s new He-Man is Hulk man, pro wrestling superstar Hulk Hogan, the centerpiece of CBS’ appalling new “Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘N’ Wrestling.” Now with a Saturday kids’ show in hand, the ranting, growling, already popular Hogan is becoming as big a marketing phenom as he is a wrestling phenom.

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You already can buy kiddie wristwatches, towels, pajamas and many other Hulkies. And now scores more Hulk tie-ins--from lunch pails to vitamins--are filling store shelves.

The present free market-minded Federal Communication Commission doesn’t mind this Saturday-morning hucksterism. Unfortunately, though, this badly animated Hulk series is selling stereotypes as well as Hulk products. CBS, which has the best Saturday-morning kid show in the wonderful “Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies & Monsters” (which doesn’t hurt the sale of Muppet toys, by the way), now also has the worst.

Although the action is outside the ring, “Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Wrestling” still conveys anger. Although the show presents so-called pro-social messages on occasion, they are largely blurred in an hour that reinforces the kind of polarizing Cold War and racial stereotypes rampant in the camp burlesque of pro wrestling.

The series presents cartoon versions of Hulk Hogan and other caricatured stars of the World Wrestling Federation in good-versus-evil confrontations occasionally intercut with the real-life wrestlers.

The rise of pro wrestling--with its clear-cut good guys and bad guys--parallels growing American sentiment for easily identifiable heroes and villains in our foreign relations. But the line separating heroes and villains is far clearer in the ring and on Saturday-morning TV than in the off-TV world. And defining societies in extremes is no way to prepare children for that real world.

There are no shades and gradations in the ring or in “Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘N’ Wrestling,” only white hats and black hats.

Hulk is a white hat and his antagonist, Rowdy Roddy Piper, a black hat. But Rowdy’s evil henchmen on the series include the Iron Sheik, Nikolai Volkoff and Mr. Fuji.

The Iron Sheik of Saturday-morning TV wears the traditional Arab headdress and has an exaggerated hooked nose, a black mustache and heavy black eyebrows. His animalistic sidekick, the bald and burly Volkoff (all Soviet characters are bald brutes in professional wrestling), wears a fur hat and “U.S.S.R.” printed on his T-shirt. Mr. Fuji wears a little bowler hat, a droopy mustache and a goatee, and is sneaky.

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These ugly stereotypes are selling an attitude, a philosophy: Arabs (even though the Iron Sheik is supposed to be Iranian) are evil; we should not seek accommodation with the Soviets; Asians are not to be trusted.

The stereotypes are selling a simplistic view of the world.

Iron Sheik: “Nikolai, so do what I told you.”

Nikolai: “Right, Comrade Sheik.”

Continued pairing of the Iron Sheik and Nikolai on this show can give kids the impression that they are a single commodity, that Arabs and communists are necessarily the same.

This sort of act is pretty funny in the ring. But on Saturday morning, with a very young, impressionable audience tuned in, it’s obnoxious and dangerous.

And there’s still more. One of the Hulk’s sidekicks is a cartoon version of Junkyard Dog, a dancing, jive-talking black wrestler (“Get down, mama!”) who wears a long iron chain around his neck as if he had been chained to a fence--like a dog--and broke away. What does that convey to children?

Lots of little Hulk action dolls are now on sale across America, and miniatures of the Iron Sheik, Nikolai Volkoff and Junkyard Dog, too.

Meanwhile, Ron Powers proposes another scenario that would accelerate kiddievision’s cold war even further: A new kid series and a new set of marketing tie-ins based on another superhero:

Rambo.


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