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How TV Guide Influenced Your Parents


In 1991, TV Guide started publishing issues twice a year devoted to helping parents decide what programs their kids should be watching. A committee of child psychologists would overanalyze each show, looking for any trace of harmful content. After many weeks of thorough research, using multiple episodes of every network cartoon for reference, they published their findings and made their recommendations. Or at least that’s what they claimed they were doing, but…I doubt it. Anybody who can say with a straight face that She-Ra is a shameless glorification of horrific violence clearly has never seen one minute of the darn thing.

As eye-rolling as it is, it’s better than what TV Guide did prior to ’91 — which was to dismiss every single children’s show except Sesame Street with a disgusted sneer. Granted, the 1980s were crammed with toy-based commerical-toons that didn’t inspire much adult respect, but outright calling GI Joe “Crypto-Fascist” is taking the judgment a touch too far. When I say they hated everything, I mean that an early article on children’s TV called The Littles “one of the most dangerous shows on the air” because of all the peril in it. These parental advisors always favored the bland and watered down over anything remotely resembling action, because after all, we kids were fragile, stupid plants.

The above image is the illustration from a March 1990 article, “How TV Influences Your Kids.” which should really be called “How TV Guide Influences Your Parents.” Zombie versions of Mr. Rogers, Mario and Luigi, the creepiest Pee Wee ever, a very round Big Bird, and as if to drive the point home, Freddy Krueger thrown in for good measure.

This is the first Parents’ Guide, from March of 1991. (Only the cover has anything to do with Urkel.) The Guide’s recommendations included Tiny Toons, Talespin and Captain Planet, and their whipping boys were the usual shows they hammered on for as long as they existed: GI Joe, He-Man and Ninja Turtles. One psychologist labeled the Turtles “a grotesque mix of marketing and manipulation,” despite the fact that TMNT was never as bad with blatant toyetic tactics as the other two.

There is one onimous short article in the issue foreshadowing the 3-hour edutainment rule that killed Saturday mornings. “Don’t have a cow, kids,” TV Guide tries to reassure us. “This doesn’t mean that ratings winners will go off the air.” A US representative assured them that “the new ruling will supplement — not supplant — what’s on television now.” Your pants are on fire, Senator. If that wasn’t unsettling enough, it’s garnished with some epically off-model stuff, even for TV Guide.

I can’t even tell who this one is supposed to be.

In this volume are TV Guide’s picks for the future classics of 1991. How accurate were they? ….well, if you’ve spotted Hammerman on the cover, you can guess the answer already. In addition to that stinkbomb, their other recommendations included the Where’s Waldo cartoon and NBC’s completely forgotten Spacecats. Out of the first three Nicktoons that had just debuted, they picked Doug. Not that there’s anything wrong with Doug, but hadn’t “Stimpy’s Invention” already aired?

This is only the third one and already, a pattern is showing. Quite commonly, the critics’ top picks included everything from PBS (no exceptions, everything) and a lot of fairy-tale anthology shows from premium cable networks that no kid actually watched, ever. They turned their noses up at Captain N and the New Super Mario World (“As if Nintendo hasn’t already made enough inroads into the culture!”) and, yet again, Ninja Turtles for its perceived extreme violence. Of Yo, Yogi, they quipped “This new cartoon appeals to people who considered the old Yogi show too cerebral and too painstakingly drawn.” Burn!

By the way, Macaulay Culkin’s favorite shows were Family Matters and Roseanne.

TV Guide will never live this one down: in the October 1992 guide, they gave Batman: The Animated Series a score of C-minus and said no adult OR child would ever want to watch it. “Curiosity will draw them in, but joyless scripts could drive them away,” TVG predicted. It also got a D for educational value. Even The Amazing Live Sea Monkeys got an overall better score. They loved Goof Troop so much (see the choice of cover) that they gave it a B on their educational scale for “innocent, innocuous fun.” Sounds like a free pass to me.

The rest was the usual PBS foot-kissing and praise for HBO and Showtime family cartoons (remember “A Bunch of Munsch”? Well, it was a classic, I guess). In a TV Guide first, Ghostwriter was dinged from a perfect score for having “rampant political correctness.” There’s no pleasing these guys.

Everybody hated Barney except TV Guide: they were recommending his videos all the way back in 1990 when no one had heard of him. There were no put-downs in this edition; instead the critics wrote all-positive top-10 lists for every age bracket. They put Doug and Rugrats together as one selection in the “Tweens” list, which is kind of cheating…and pretending something else doesn’t exist at the height of its popularity. They also backpedaled on Batman, giving it a full recommendation.

There isn’t much meanness in the October 1993 issue either — just recommendations, only this time from a larger pool. There are lists for parent-approved cartoons, prime-time sitcoms, and even game shows (skip Jeopardy — the mere name suggests violence). Praises are sung from cover to cover for Jim Henson’s weird CityKids, for all the good that did it. You probably don’t even remember what that is. It’s described as “urban, diverse teenagers dealing with real issues…..mixed with street-smart Muppets!” I remember having a “You gotta be kidding” reaction to the clip they showed on the TGIF SatAM preview special that year.

And the put-downs are BACK! In the March 1994 Parents’ Guide, “Kids Watch the Darndest Things” pitted children against adult critics and child psychologists. The kids would say why they liked certain shows and the grownups would explain how they’d grow up to be murderers in the future for liking them. The new Power Rangers got a severe ruler-whacking for being “badly made, repetitive and very violent.” So did X-Men because the mutants never tried working out their differences with the Sentinels by sitting down and talking to them. Also, “the women make Barbie look like a hausfrau.” The lady was just lucky Storm wasn’t around to hear that.

Finally, the March 1995 Parents’ Guide signaled what might have been a long-overdue mind opening at the TV Guide staff, or at least an interesting shift. Programs that looked ferocious, like Gargoyles, were actually examined on the inside as intelligent shows and fully recommended.
If that wasn’t enough of a good sign, a full article titled “Why Kids Need Heroes” served as an apology for all the condemnation they had thrown at action programs of the past. “We unplugged Power Rangers in our household when we saw how witless it was and when we saw our kids turning into kicking, jumping, HI-YAAAHing Rangers themselves,” explains TV Guide writer James Kaplan. “But the rub is that almost all action shows are witless, and must kids tend to kick, jump and go HI-YAAAAH whether they watch TV or not.”

Peggy Charren was also missing from this issue, and was never in another Parents’ Guide again.