Sad news for anyone who was taught to count, read, or to say anything in Spanish from a puppet on TV: Peggy Charren, the crusading children’s television pioneer, died last week at the age of 86.
Charren became troubled by the shoot-‘em-up Westerns and monster cartoons designed to sell breakfast cereal that were the standard (and only) television fare available to her children in the late 1960’s. Armed with a group of like-minded parents, the courage of her politically liberal, socially-minded convictions, and her formidable personal charm, she founded Action for Children’s Television in her Newton, Mass. home in 1968, lobbying Congress for new legislation requiring broadcasters to offer educational and quality children’s programming commensurate with their federal mandate to “serve the public” interest. In doing so, the diminutive daughter of an Upper West Side Jewish family helped pave the way for Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and myriad other shows that conspired to make the so-called “idiot box” far less idiotic.
In her capacity as advisor trustee at WGBH Boston, she oversaw the development of classic shows like Arthur, Degrassi, and most indelibly of all, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, which was probably the most exciting children’s game show of all time, and let’s face it, is the only reason any 30-something American today knows where the hell Burkina Faso is. (And we do. We all do. Do it, Rockapella!)
Despite her smiley demeanor and cheerful public image, Charren was not immune from controversy. The FCC under the permissive Reagan administration gutted much of the legislation she had worked to achieve, and she suffered numerous attacks from conservative politicians concerned that the programming she championed indoctrinated children with such “un-American values” as sharing, tolerance, and racial pluralism. (Former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, I’m looking at you.)
Despite all this, Charren’s legacy to the once and future children of America is indelible. Every time you hear the word “aardvark” and picture a sweet bespectacled creature with a backpack, or feel prepared to counter bullying or prejudice in a peer situation, or can confidently answer a Jeopardy question about a former Portuguese colony, you just might owe that to Peggy Charren. And she’ll be smiling, wherever in the world she may yet be.