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Advocates for Children’s TV Air Their Beef With McDonald’s : Television: Ronald McDonald as host of ‘The Wish That Changed Christmas’ blurs the line between advertising and programming, critics say.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tonight’s airing of “The Wish That Changed Christmas” on CBS has drawn fire from children’s television advocates who say it is nothing more than a program-length commercial for its sponsor, McDonald’s restaurants.

The 8:30 p.m. program is the first of what McDonald’s says will be an occasional series called “Ronald McDonald’s Family Theater,” intended to promote reading. It features the clown--clad in bright yellow coveralls that say McDonald’s on them--as its host, reading to children from a book emblazoned with the company’s golden arches symbol.

Critics ranging from consumer and child advocates to a top advertising executive have questioned the use of the clown, saying it blurs the line between advertising and programming and might violate federal rules on commercials aimed at children.

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“It was bad enough to have a bunch of toys hosting shows,” said Peggy Charren, the founder of the media watchdog group Action for Children’s Television, who campaigned against kids’ shows based on toys, such as “He-Man” and “G.I. Joe.” “Now there is a corporate logo hosting a program.”

McDonald’s defended its choice of host. “Ronald is a character that virtually all kids know and in many ways look up to,” said Mary Miller, director of youth marketing for the fast-food chain. “We feel he is a natural for the message of getting kids involved and interested in reading.”

Sponsorship by a single company of an entire program on television is nothing new. “Hallmark Hall of Fame” presentations contain commercials for Hallmark cards, and Sears bought time on CBS three weeks ago to present “E.T.” with only its ads. But Charren and others contend that in this instance, the commercials are part of the program.

Gina Harrison, a staff attorney with the policy and rules division of the Federal Communications Commission, said that while she could not comment on the program specifically, the agency does regulate the way products are sold during children’s shows, prohibiting what it calls “program-length commercials” and the use of a program host to sell a product.

“Recently, the commission defined program-length children’s commercials as a program associated with a product, in which commercials for that product are aired,” Harrison said.

But, she said, if a program is not aimed specifically at children, or if the host does not appear personally in the commercials, an advertiser might successfully argue that the rules do not apply.

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Both CBS and McDonald’s said that they worked hard to make sure that “Ronald McDonald’s Family Theater” would fall within FCC rules. The company purposely kept commercials featuring the clown out of the broadcast, Miller said, and did not show him promoting McDonald’s restaurants during his appearances as host.

But even if Ronald McDonald is not in the spots, his very presence is the equivalent of a commercial, according to Michael Jacobson, co-founder of the Center for the Study of Commercialism in Washington, D.C.

“Ronald McDonald is per se an advertisement for McDonald’s hamburgers,” Jacobson said. “There’s only one thing you think of when you see Ronald McDonald and it’s not running to the library for books.”

Cy Schneider, executive vice president of the New York-based advertising agency Bozell, Inc. and author of the book “Children’s Television: The Art, the Business and How It Works,” said that, for some children, research bears out that contention.

“The research indicates that children under 4 are often unable to distinguish between commercials and programming,” Schneider said.

Schneider said he thinks that as long as Ronald McDonald is not making out-and-out pitches for hamburgers, the program probably will not harm children. But having the clown as the host “starts us down a slippery slope,” he said. “Next year, are they going to do a story about children getting hamburgers for Christmas?”

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In addition, he said, the use of Ronald McDonald stirs up controversy that could have been avoided by the choice of another host.

“I would not have done it,” Schneider said. “I think they could have accomplished (their goal) perfectly well and done the show without Ronald McDonald reading the story. They could have gotten anybody from Bill Cosby to Shari Lewis to do the story.”

According to Jacobson, the use of a corporate logo like Ronald McDonald to host a program is part of a trend among advertisers to escape having their commercials “zapped” off the screen by viewers wielding remote controls. During sports events, he said, companies display their symbols on score boards, boxing mats and other places. Films increasingly show brand-name products being used by characters as part of the story.

McDonald’s Miller said that Ronald was often employed to promote social causes. She contended that even in the company’s commercials, he “doesn’t sell hamburgers.”

“He appears in McDonald’s commercials, but he is there doing fun things, having a good time,” Miller said. “He does not sell a product.”

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