Monday, May 30, 2011

When the Captain Was Left Out to Sea

On Memorial day, we honor all the fallen heroes in the nation's service who made sacrifices for us as civilians. And as we are in the midst of another bloody culture war, I'd like to celebrate one of our greatest heroes of that front.

If you spend enough time listening to the mutterings of ordinary people, sooner or later you will hear that things are in a bollix. It's a timeless rant, to be sure, but to an extent, I am in agreement with that complaint. Consequently, everyone wants to know when this country went down the toilet, to pin it down to a single event. Depending on the political stripe of the complainant, it is usually attributed to when the rival party achieved certain power or passed certain legislation. Some like to pin it to a certain social sea change, usually involving the increased influence of an "other." And as such, I have my theory.

We as a nation became damned when CBS cancelled "CAPTAIN KANGAROO."

Up until that moment, on national television, there was still something front and center that was geared for a purpose other than money and ratings. Sure, TV networks and stations had public interest programs, but those were usually buried in deep programming holes guaranteed to be found by no one. (See: SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE"'s dead-on "Perspectives" sketches with Tim Meadows). Sure, there was ostensible children's programming, but those were increasingly turning into garish, half-hour toy commercials with a clumsy 30-second "morals" segment to fulfill the contractual obligation of being "educational." (See: "Knowing is half the battle: Go JOE!") Yes, of course there was "SESAME STREET," but PBS programming still had trouble reaching many households due to poor UHF reception, and this was a TV show that depended on government support (The Corporation for Public Broadcasting) and generous benefactors (Carnegie Corporation, the Ford Foundation, and grants from almost everybody but the Chubb Group) precisely to keep it protected from the kinds of mercenarial market forces that could dilute its mandate.

But "CAPTAIN KANGAROO" was right there on CBS at 8 AM, five days a week. It was a beacon that told America that their growing children, easily succeptible to the lure of television, would have a place to go to where they were safe. There would be sweetness, but it never felt contrived or saccharine. There would be stimulating images, but he always pushed the young viewer to create their own images later on. There would be slapstick and maybe some embarassment for the Captain, getting pelted with ping pong balls by Mr. Moose, but no humiliation or degradation. Offscreen, Bob Keeshan strictly monitored what ads the show ran: he was businessman enough to know that you had to sell stuff, but he made sure the kids weren't being exploited, so sugary foods were kept to a minimum, and violent war toys were flat out not welcome. Even the opening montage, where you might see anyone from kids to adults, farmers to bankers, and famous people like Tom Brokaw or The Fonz or even the President saying "Good morning, Captain," sent a subtle message to kids at home that grown-ups knew the Captain was an important man and someone to respect. Even when you reached 3rd grade and were too cool to watch those baby shows any more, if you were home sick from school, you probably sneaked a look at the show and laughed at Mr. Moose still, because, well, ping pong balls are always funny.

And then, despite multiple Emmy nominations for the show and host, and Keeshan quickly recuperating from a heart attack that required triple-bypass surgery (where he receved thousands of get-well cards), CBS unceremoniously tampered with his program. First, in September 1981, the show was cut to a half hour and moved up an hour earlier to 7 AM, which affected the leisurely pacing that had made him so soothing. They literally renamed the show, "WAKE UP WITH THE CAPTAIN," suggesting that instead of having time to contemplate the day and hang around, kids had to snap to it, get dressed, and out the door. Then six months later they moved him to 6:30 AM, when most kids were still asleep! A year later, he was moved to Saturday mornings, where most affiliates couldn't be bothered to even run the show and yanked him off the air. Despite all of this, Keeshan and the show continued to win Emmys and accolades. But he clearly got tired of the constant heaving from CBS [and if I may interject, I know firsthand about the practice of a network constantly changing a program's timeslot to insure nobody will watch it and thus justify cancelling it], so he let his contract expire and "CAPTAIN KANGAROO" was gone for good by 1984, just shy of its 30th anniversary on television.

Why would CBS give the bum's rush to an American institution, a personality that had been as synonymous with their identity as the Eye logo? Why would they jerk around the man second only to Fred Rogers who demonstrated the positive power of TV on society?

To expand their morning news, so they could compete with "TODAY" and "GOOD MORNING AMERICA" for an already finite audience, and more impotantly, the advertising dollars.

With one act, a major television network told America's children, "Fuck off. We can make more money running a program for adults that is exactly the same as its competition, where we can sell ads for snow tires and Maalox. Because adults have disposable income, and you don't. You kids are not important, go somewhere else." The ultimate exclamation point upon the Me Decade.

Today, there's lots of good shows for children on cable and satellite. But you have to pay for cable and's called PAY TV for a reason. Maybe the saturation is such that only 24% of U.S. households don't have subscriptions, but that's still 30.7 million households relying solely on over-the-air broadcasting for their television viewing. (And that of course, is provided that those crappy digital converters--and don't get me started on those!--even work) Also consider that while kids could conceivably watch stuff on the internet, 40% of households don't have the broadband or high-speed connections required to watch longform streaming media, and 30% have no internet access at all. Which means those kids, who need positive TV programming the most, are shit out of luck.

Some shows are still available for free on PBS. But PBS depends on outside money, which is getting harder to come by every year, especially in this intense partisan climate where it has become a convenient political football. And much of the shows are just pleasant white noise ("TELETUBBIES"), or dumbed-down pandering ("BARNEY"), while "SESAME STREET" has drastically cut down on new episodes and sadly, Mister Rogers doesn't even surivive in reruns.

What little programming the major over-the-air networks offer to satisfy the FCC's mandatory 3 hours of Educational and Informative content for kids are mostly more of the same loud glorified toy commercials. NBC repuposes a few semi-educational series from the "qubo" collective on Saturday mornings...and if you're lucky, maybe you can find an affiliate who actually airs that lineup instead of pre-empting it for their own syndicated sports, news, or lifestyle programs for adults. To say that enforcement of this rule has been lax is not only a given, but would prompt Mr. Moose to notice that the FCC "lax" balls and thus bring a shower of them on their heads.

And by the way...CBS has never, ever, EVER...prove me wrong, TV heads...NEVER been able to dominate NBC or ABC's daily morning news shows, not with Bryant Gumbel, not with Paula Zahn, not with Martha Stewart...nothing.

When CBS devoted an hour each day to "CAPTAIN KANGAROO," they told kids that it was great to be a kid, there were all manner of possibilities in the world to explore, and there were friendly adults to help them navigate it.

Somebody at the network decided they couldn't spare an hour a day for America's kids. And to me, that's obviously where things go wrong.


  1. So are you saying that the reason I enjoy the commercials more than the football during the Superbowl might have to do with having grown up enjoying some of the best half-hour animated commercials in television history?

  2. Brilliant. The Captain did all you claim. And it' so sad to see the media monopolies get away with ignoring the public interest. Even most kid's shows today are just smug, ironic put-ons by hipsters too above it all.