Friday, January 23, 2004

Remembering Captain Kangaroo

In honor of Bob Keeshan, aka. Captain Kangaroo, who passed away today I am reprinting below a column that I wrote nearly 10 years ago for the Kerrville Daily Times.

A wake for Capt. Kangaroo
By Mike W. Thomas

Kerrville Daily Times, Sept. 7, 1995

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the “Captain Kangaroo Show” which used to air weekday mornings on CBS from 1955 through 1984. Captain Kangaroo was right up there in importance with Sesame Street and Mister Roger’s Neighborhood of the television programs that I grew up watching.
Oddly enough, CBS is making no plans to mark the occasion with any type of 40th anniversary special. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the circumstances behind the Captain’s departure from network television 11 years ago. Bob Keeshan, who delighted generations of children for 29 years as Captain Kangaroo, did not choose to retire in 1984; he was unceremoniously given the boot and his show was canceled by unsrcupulous and greedy network executives at CBS. It seems that the market for Mr. Green Jeans action figures did not appear to be very lucrative.
So why did the CBS executives suddenly turn greedy in 1984 after tolerating Keeshan’s program for so long? It wasn’t the television industry that changed then, it was the government. Up until 1982, the Federal Communications Commission required the three major networks to set aside so many hours a week for quality children’s programming. It did not matter if a gossipy morning chat show or a sleazy tabloid program might pull in more advertizing revenues - the FCC set down the rules and that was it.
But in 1981, President Ronald Reagan entered the picture with his misguided philosophy that all regulation of business is bad regardless of its intent or purpose. By 1982, he had managed to appoint a majority of his ideological cohorts to the FCC and they began changing the rules including the ones setting aside blocks of time for children’s programming. Mark Fowler, Reagan’s appointee to head the FCC, said television should be treated like any other business and not like a public resource. “Television is just another appliance,” he said. “It’s a toaster with pictures.”
Soon thereafter, the networks began unloading their educational children’s programming as fast as they could dump it. As related in Tom Engelhardt’s essay “The Shortcake Strategy,” the networks wasted no time in taking advantage of the new direction offered by Reagan’s FCC.
“In 1982, CBS fired 20 people doing alternative programming for children, dropped the children’s news show ‘30 Minutes,’ and began phasing out the low-rated ‘Captain Kangaroo.’ ABC cut ‘Animals, Animals, Animals’ and ‘Kids Are People Too,’ its low-rated Emmy-award-winning weekend shows, while NBC pulled the plug on ‘Project Peacock,’ its prime time children’s specials.”
Reagan’s FCC also did away with the rule limiting the number of minutes of commercial advertising the networks could air during children’s programs. This effectively opened the way for the 30-minute animated cartoon toy commercials that the networks have passed off as children’s television ever since - Smurfs, Care Bears, He-Man, G.I. Joe, Transformers, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, ad nauseum.
If you check the weekday morning time slots today where “Captain Kangaroo” once aired, you will now find such quality programming as Geraldo Rivera, Montel Williams and Jerry Springer. It’s ironic indeed that the deterioration of television programming to the trash we have today can be traced back to the policies set forth by the so-called “family values” conservatives of the 1980s.
Since then the prospects for quality children’s programming have continued to decline. The current batch of yahoos now running the U.S. Congress have set their sights on eliminating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which has become one of the last refuges for good programming in the vast wasteland of our public airwaves. You can be assured that without PBS, Mister Rogers and Sesame Street would have shared the same fate as Captain Kangaroo long ago.
Our public airwaves are a national resource that should have a modicum amount of regulation to insure some benefit to society as a whole; something more than just a means for media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner to make millions in profits. Instead, we are about to deregulate the industry even further.
An anniversary special for Captain Kangaroo? Don’t kid yourself. These days a wake would be more appropriate.

Needless to say, things have not changed much since I wrote this.