Once upon a time there was an enchanted land where heroes still walked the earth performing wondrous deeds, and where strange and magical things took place on a fairly regular basis. 

It was a place where children could take refuge from the humdrum realities of day-to-day life and be happy. I should know; I visited there a few times myself.

But there came to this happy land a Wicked Witch, who had forgotten what it was like to be young and did not believe in joy and happiness and fun. She looked upon the children’s smiling faces and decided that anything that could make children this happy must be bad. 

And so she set out to destroy the laughter…

•.     •.     •

This “magical land,” for those among you who may have grown up and forgotten, is children’s television. 

In my day, television was not just some inanimate electronic box. It was a haven, a place where I could join together with the greatest collection of imaginary friends ever, for adventures beyond belief. It was a means of escaping the mundane life of the real world: school, chores, et cetera.

In a word, it was FUN. 

Oh, for the days when I sat in front of the television wrapped in one of Mom’s afghans, cross-legged on the floor with my bowl of Cap’n Crunch and my 10-box top Tony The Tiger Spoon that set my folks back an extra $3.50. Oh, for the Winter of 1968: the quiet of 7:30 in the a.m., the smell of Mom’s homemade hot chocolate on the stove wafting through the chilly air, the warm sound of that fizzing Magnavox and the popping static of Bugs Bunny dancing into focus.

The glory days of Saturday morning kid's TV. Those were good days. I miss them. And it saddens me to think that my grandchild might never know that same simple joy.

Turn on CBS these days on a Saturday morning and you get a bunch of educational shows that are on occasion mildly interesting but ultimately dull - and it seems they keep showing the same six of seven episodes over and over. And they have the nerve to use the phrase "It's epic!" as the tagline for their Saturday lineup promotional ads.

I've got news for you, CBS: There’s nothing “epic” about Mo Rocca or Dr. Chris, Pet Vet. They’re educational. Even interesting, at times. But epic? Hardly. Have that “Mocabulary” lady look it up in the dictionary if you don’t believe me.

Let me clue you in on what a truly epic Saturday morning was like back in the day. Space Ghost was epic. Jonny Quest was epic. The Batman-Superman Hour was epic. Frankenstein Jr. was epic. Underdog was epic Shazzan was epic. The New Scooby-Doo Movies was epic. Birdman, the Herculoids, Mighty Mouse, Mightor, the Super Friends… heck, even The Perils of Penelope Pitstop and Jose and the Pussycats had their occasional epic moments.

And all those times Bugs Bunny found himself pitted against Elmer Fudd or Daffy Duck? You don’t get any more epic than that, I don’t care what anybody says.

Alas, there has been darkness upon the land for some time now. It descended when the Wicked Witch of the West - also known as Peggy Charren, the late buttinski kidvid activist who founded the meddlesome Action for Children’s Television organization -  sent her flying monkeys out to do battle against the idea of watching TV simply for the fun of it.

Old grudges die hard. For me, the one grudge I have had the most difficulty getting over as an adult has been the Children’s Television Act of 1990. This act, which Charren helped create, requires television stations to air programming that serves “the educational and informational needs of children.”

In other words, the stations are being forced to cram education down the throats of young viewers who get a bellyful of that sort of thing all week at school anyway. All because of yahoos like Peggy Charen, who think they can hold public airwaves hostage if they don’t conform to their own personal notions of what is good for the rest of us. 

When I was a kid, I didn’t watch TV to learn; I watched it to relax. Especially on the weekends - and most especially on Saturday mornings. The way I saw it, it was bad enough we had to study all week at school; the idea of being subjected to more of the same at home on our days off from school just seemed all kinds of wrong. 

I mean, come on… What fun is that, for crying out loud?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking the importance of education. There is a place for educational programming on television, and there have been some very fine educational programs produced over the years. “Sesame Street” is the standard by which all others have been judged over the past five decades, and rightfully so. Before that there were “Mr. Wizard” and “Captain Kangaroo”; in the 1970s there was my personal favorite, ABC-TV’s “Curiosity Shop,” the brainchild of revered animator Chuck Jones. 

For the most part - in my day, at least - kids tended to view school the same way we adults tend to view our jobs : It’s nice to be able to take a break once in a while. 

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Or, at least, there shouldn’t be.

But Peggy Charren said “No.” Peggy Charren said fun TV is bad TV. Peggy Charen said if our kids aren’t getting some kind of important message crammed down their throats every second of the day, their lives will be a total waste. 

I can’t prove it, but I always suspected Peggy Charren’s children must have spent a lot of time wishing their mother would mind her own cotton-pickin’ business…  

The biggest problem I had with Charren’s notion of what constitutes healthy viewing fare for my child is that her “ideal programming” is extremely narrow in focus, and are in many ways even more unbelievable than the relatively innocent cartoons she worked so hard to take off the air. 

Look at Barney, that nauseatingly-sweet purple dinosaur that was all the rage when my oldest son was a tot. Sure, many critics gave his show high marks for teaching children important values and other things they really should have been learning from their parents and teachers, instead of from some long-extinct lizard who most likely would have eaten those kids in real life. 

But a lot of those lessons were, in many cases, unrealistic. They taught “truths” that can only be true in a perfect world - something this one definitely isn’t, and never will be. Shows like “Barney And Friends,” to quote Time magazine, “shelter kids from the rude real world - a strange notion of education indeed.”

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I never knew of any kid who threw himself off a cliff because he saw Wile E. Coyote walk away from such a fall on Saturday morning. I have, on the other hand, known several kids who have gotten the crud beat out of them because they followed Barney’s advice and turned the other cheek when some bully on the playground tried picking a fight.

I felt much better letting my kids watch the Coyote. They seemed to enjoy it better, too. Thank God for home video…

•.     •.     •

During the House Hearings on Children’s Television in the early 1990s, Massachusetts Representative Edward Markey offered up the following sound bite for media types to chew on: “Children’s TV on commercial broadcast television today remains the video equivalent of a Twinkie.”

Actually, to be fair to Mr. Markey, that was a pretty accurate statement. But what he and Peggy Charren and countless others seem to forget is that Twinkies were never meant to be the major staple of one’s diet. A Twinkie is a treat, something to be savored and enjoyed after a nutritious meal or as a small reward for some chore. 

Nobody expects a kid to live on nothing but Twinkies, not even the kid. 

So it is - or was, back in the days when it was worth watching - with children’s television. Sure, most of the stuff I watched as a kid may not have had much redeeming value… but so what? It’s wasn’t supposed to! It was a treat, to be enjoyed after school in the afternoons or on lazy Saturday mornings. 

And if it was low on educational value, that was okay, too. I turned out okay, all things considered. After all, there’s got to be more to life than always having a lesson crammed down your throat every time you turn around. 

All that education can get pretty tiring. What’s so bad about a little frivolity to ease the tension once in a while?

(Copyright © 2018 by John Allen Small)