Once upon a time in children's television land, we had our cartoon characters, such as Tom & Jerry, Huckleberry Hound and Bugs Bunny. And we had real people or actors doing roles -- Lassie's boy Timmy and Rin Tin Tin's boy Rusty, and more recently the Hudson Brothers, Marshall, Will and Holly, and Pee-wee Herman.
But as another fall TV season arrives, the networks are competing for pint-sized viewers in the kiddie prime-time hours of Saturday morning with a dismaying mixed-media mix of pop culture figures in depressingly uncreative, mostly animated vehicles.
Real people who are being reduced to cartoon characters this fall, for example, include athletes Bo Jackson, Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan (in NBC's "Prostars") and rapper M. C. Hammer (in ABC's "Hammerman").
Then there are the usual animated rip-offs of movies that were hits with the young crowd. New ones include a cartoon "Back to the Future" (on CBS, with the voices of Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd), "Little Shop" on Fox (from the movie "Little Shop of Horrors") and "Wishkid" (on NBC), a thinly disguised nod to "Home Alone" which stars the voice of Macaulay Culkin, the young star of the hit film.
Even some original cartoon characters are being transformed. From the funny pages come "Mother Goose and Grimm" (on CBS). And from earlier TV the venerable Hanna-Barbera character of "Yogi Bear" appears in "Yo, Yogi!" (on NBC) as a teen-age crime-fighter. (In similar fashion, Fox still has "Tom & Jerry Kids," in which the long-time combatants are younger versions of themselves.)
You can even find "Waldo" on Saturday mornings (CBS), the elusive, bespectacled character from a series of popular children's books.
Further, until the Children's Television Act of 1990 takes effect next year (limiting advertisements), the heaviest messages continue to be in the form of commercials, most of which are for nutritionally deficient food products.
Earlier this summer, for example, the Center for Science in the Public Interest released a report asserting that Saturday morning children's television encourages eating habits that can lead to tooth decay, heart disease and cancer. Most commercials are for cereals, followed by restaurants, candy, beverages, cookies, entrees and chips.
However, while the overall picture is disturbing for parents -- who know their kids are getting up early to sit in front of the tube -- each half-hour of the morning does seem to offer a show (and rarely, two) perhaps worth a look.
So here is a parents guide to the best of kiddie prime:
7:30 a.m. -- It's buried in a low-viewership early slot, but NBC's "K-TV" (premiering today) is a weekly news magazine-style show aimed at youngsters, with host Molly Barber. Real people, not cartoons! Another somewhat similar choice is on cable's Nickelodeon, with young people adjudicating mock trials in "Kids' Court."
8 a.m. -- Two new shows premiere here, NBC's "Chip & Pepper" and CBS' "Riders in the Sky." Both include at least some live-action real people: In the former, Canadian brothers Chip and Pepper Foster host cartoons and other features, and in the latter, live characters, puppets and some animation are in a Western setting.
(Time out for a tantrum. ABC's competition at 8 is the animated Disney "Winnie the Pooh," which has been praised for its wholesome tradition. But a recent edition had Winnie, Tigger, Piglet and Christopher Robin sitting inside watching TV and ordering out for pizza. Such modernization is simply sacrilege to the charming A. A. Milne stories. Read your kids the books instead.)
8:30 a.m. -- ABC has an interesting revival here, a new version of "Land of the Lost" from Sid and Marty Krofft. The original was on NBC in 1974-'76 and again in 1978, and featured a mix of live-action and stop-action special effects. "Marshall, Will and Holly . . ." of the title song were a father, son and daughter who fell through a waterfall time warp into a land of dinosaurs and an ancient race of insect-like creatures, the Sleestacks.
In last week's premiere, an earthquake fissure similarly swallowed the Jeep of the Porters (Timothy Bottoms, Robert Gavin and Jenny Drugan). The dinosaurs seem better than the original and the dialogue just as corny. And where the kids get the batteries to power their stereo players is a question not answered. But it's all in fun.
9 a.m. -- "Darkwing Duck" is an interesting newcomer on ABC, a Disney cartoon feature about a rather inept superhero fowl (also being seen weekdays in syndication). The animation quality is high, but kids will miss some of the adult satire.
For instance, the premiere had Darkwing battling malevolent moles, whose leader was called "Moliarty." How many youngsters will get the reference to Sherlock Holmes' nemesis? (Indeed, it is easy to be irritated by this, imagining kids finally reading Conan Doyle's classics, encountering Moriarty and saying, "Hey, this came from 'Darkwing Duck'!")
NBC's returning "Super Mario World" in this time slot deserves continuing scorn for its commercial tie-in to video games.
9:30 a.m. -- The Fox show "Taz-Mania" is better than NBC's sports rip-off "Prostars" and ABC's returning movie rip-off "Beetlejuice." It features the manic old Warner Brothers character, the Tasmanian Devil, with a somewhat satirical tone.
There is also some adult humor here, such as a character whose voice and mannerisms are those of Bing Crosby. Again, you have to wonder how kids will react upon encountering the real crooner in an old movie someday.
10 a.m. -- A breakfast break would be best. "Wishkid" on NBC seems too exploitative of "Home Alone," "Little Shop" on Fox is palely imitative of the movie, and "Ninja Turtles" on CBS is nothing new and comes with an awesome level of commercial connections.
On ABC, at least "Hammerman" features rapper M. C. Hammer briefly in person to offer messages to viewers. In the premiere last week, he urged kids not to mar their neighborhoods with graffiti. The cartoon adventures are just crude, however.
Note also that "Yogi Bear," the Hanna-Barbera original, can be seen at this hour on cable's Nickelodeon.
10:30 a.m. -- Try ABC's "Pirates of Dark Water," a new Hanna-Barbera adventure. It seems derivative of a host of earlier shows, but not as fantastic as NBC's "Spacecats" (feline space aliens battling Earth villains) nor as exploitative of the movies as Fox's "Bill & Ted's Adventure."
11 a.m. -- Surprise! A show with real actors has survived into a third season. It's NBC's "Saved by the Bell," a school-based comedy/drama series that deals relatively realistically with the lives of young people.
Traditionalists can tune in "Bugs Bunny & Tweety," the latest packaging of the Warner Brothers gang on ABC.
11:30 a.m. -- It remains to be seen whether this despoils the book original, but "Waldo" on CBS at least seems worth a look.
Prime alternatives to kids' TV
Parents, are you concerned about the time your kids spend in front of the television set on Saturday mornings? Consider some of these alternatives:
*Get out of the house, already, all of you. Try a regular monthly family outing, a picnic or a visit to a local attraction.
*Forgo sleeping late a couple weekends to watch what they are watching with them. TV can actually facilitate communication, especially if you talk about what you used to watch -- or what kids did before there was TV.
At the least, children can be given a sense of what's better for them to watch.
*Consider videotapes as an alternative to broadcast or cable viewing.
The children's sections of video stores are growing, with everything from old youth-oriented movies to made-for-video productions from "Sesame Street" to "KidSongs," a nice series of traditional music videos. Public libraries are also a surprisingly good source of videos.
But you can also develop a library of your own rerun fare. Try to tape worthwhile programming the kids may want to see again, from daily editions of "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood" to good movies. And zap out those commercials.
*Try to integrate books with TV viewing for, as the organization Action for Children's Television contends, "TV and books are good for each other."
For example, Saturday morning shows such as "Winnie the Pooh" and the new "Waldo" originated in books. Expose your kids to the original source material.
ACT has published a pamphlet offering some worthwhile tips, "TV, Books & Children," which is available for $5 from the organization at: 210 University Road, Cambridge, Mass. 02138.
*Don't panic. TV is today's equivalent of earlier generations' comic books and dime novels, and scholars disagree over what harm is done by habitual viewing.
It is true that the American Academy of Pediatrics in July issued a report warning that too much TV "may be linked with violent or aggressive behavior, obesity, poor academic performance, precocious sexuality and the use of drugs and alcohol."
But an earlier 1989 study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education found little conclusive evidence that TV effects behavior or development. Specifically, it found no evidence that TV has a mesmerizing effect on children's attention, that it replaces other valuable activities or even that it significantly reduces reading achievement.
Rather, study authors suggested excessive TV viewing is often a symptom of other problems, such as family instability.