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TV show is high on camp and low on special effects, but kids love feisty heroes The Mighty Nielsen Power Rangers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Even though adults groan at it, TV critics pan it, Fox television executives once dreaded it and parents are still frantically searching for the toys based on it, "The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" is the hit of kiddie TV.

The "Power Rangers," which airs on Fox Children's Network every day except Sunday in Baltimore, is a camp, live-action adventure show targeted to children between the ages of 6 and 11. And it's hitting its mark: The Power Rangers have captured the highest Nielsen ratings for a network children's TV show.

The show's premise combines the adolescent angst of "Saved By The Bell" with "Battle of the Planets"-style action (both "Planets" and "Rangers" feature five heroes that combine into one giant superhero).

It features silly, non-menacing, obviously fake monsters, cheesy production, low-tech special effects and sometimes hokey stories. The show's action sequences are fairly benign and fantastical. Even so, some experts are concerned that they are too violent.

Obviously, kids don't care what they think. They watch it avidly for reasons that mystify the average adult.

But it was, of course, a grown-up who conceived it all.

Haim Saban, founder of Saban Entertainment, realized that while live-action children's adventure shows were popular in other parts of the world, there weren't any on American television. So he bought the action sequences from a Japanese children's program, edited the footage of the costumed Japanese stunt people together with new film sequences of American teens, and the Power Rangers were born.

Then Mr. Saban pitched the show to networks, station groups, everybody he could think of -- without luck.

Until he met Margaret Loesch, president of Fox Children's Network. She also thought it would succeed, but that was not the case with anyone else at Fox or their affiliate stations. "They thought I [had] lost it," she says. But she decided to run the show anyway, and it debuted this fall.

Now the "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" is the highest-rated kids' show on broadcast television. It airs in Baltimore and in most markets at 7:30 a.m. weekdays and 11:30 a.m. Saturday on WBFF-TV, Channel 45. The Saturday show has a 12.5 rating with children between the ages of 2 and 11. The next highest-rated Saturday show is Fox's "X-Men" with 10.1. The next highest, non-Fox show is ABC's "Tales from the Cryptkeeper" with 7.5.

The weekday "Rangers" does similarly well with a rating of 7.2. Fox's "Animaniacs" is next highest, with 5.6, and the syndicated "Bonkers" is the highest non-Fox show, with a 4.5 rating.

Despite its popularity,"Power Rangers" has many detractors. Television critic David Bianculli says that " 'Mighty Morphin Power Rangers' is awful. Really, really awful."

However, Fox has gotten very few negative letters from parents. While the show generates bags of mail, far more than anticipated, Ms. Loesch says Fox has received only three complaint letters.

"[The show] is silly," says Jean Sanders, a Baltimore mother, "but I guess it's better than some other things they could watch."

Champions of the show point out that TV critics and adults are not the target audience. Children are, and toy sales ("Power Rangers" was the sought-after Christmas toy this season), ratings and mall appearances indicate the target audience is pleased with the product.

Ms. Sanders' 10-year-old son, Jeffrey, thinks it's "cool."

Nine-year-old Tommy Johnson of Baltimore thinks "it's great. They've got dinosaur power."

Dinosaurs, attractive actors from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, brightly colored sets, a fast pace and energetic music all contribute to what the viewers like about the show -- but there's more.

Ms. Loesch points out that the Power Rangers are kids who can transform themselves into superheroes. Kids can identify with Billy, Kimberly and the others and imagine what it would be like to be them.

Another key to the show's popularity can be found in the lead female characters, Trini and Kimberly. Feminist and children's education groups complain that most children's programs show active boys who usually save the day or rescue the girls, who are more passive or act as helpers to the boys. Not on "Power Rangers."

Strong girls

While they may wear stereotypically feminine colors such as pink and yellow, Kimberly and Trini are very active. Trini is described as having "lightning hands and a peaceful soul," and Kimberly is a champion gymnast. Both girls fight the antagonist Rita Repulsa's minions side by side with the boys. And they don't need to be rescued by anyone, thank you very much.

This seemingly small difference means a lot. According to Ms. Loesch, approximately 40 percent of the "Power Rangers" audience is girls as opposed to about 20 percent for other Fox children's programs.

"Trini's my favorite," says 10-year-old Tiffany James of Baltimore. "She has the power of a saber-tooth tiger, and I like tigers. She's a really good fighter, and she can understand Billy -- the others can't." (See the accompanying story on Page 1C for a rundown on the show's characters and their powers.)

Children like it, but some adult media experts don't.

Some say the show is derivative. For example, Alpha Five is a good but dithering robot reminiscent of C-3PO in the "Star Wars" series. The good and all-wise Zordon, who appears as the image of a disembodied head, has an amazing resemblance to the Wizard of Oz. Evil Rita Repulsa riding her "interdimensional flying bicycle" evokes Elvira Gulch, the villainess in "The Wizard of Oz."

The show reminds Dr. Carole Lieberman, media psychiatrist and clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles, of something that came out of a blender. "It's like they picked all the top shows and movies for kids and put them into a computer and got this show," she says. "It's just a coldly calculated appeal to kids [that lacks] . . . creativity."

Dr. Lieberman also considers "Power Rangers" a "high-tech, special-effects" show.

Others disagree on both counts.

Dr. Neil Alperstein, associate professor of pop culture at Loyola College, believes the show engages children's imaginations. Because of its low-budget look, "The kids can watch it and fill the blanks using their own imaginations."

But is it good for children? Opinions vary wildly.

John Shorr, associate professor of communications and director of communications programs at the University of Baltimore, is concerned about the violence on the show, but he likes one part of it a great deal.

Reality check

At the end of many episodes, there is a "Reality Check," a one-minute segment that shows children real people are inside the monster costumes and how the special effects tricks and staged fighting works. Mr. Shorr says this pulls the curtain back from the show and emphasizes that it's only fantasy and that actions on the show cannot and should not be duplicated in the real world.

Dr. Lieberman dislikes both the violence and the "Reality Checks."

"It's a harmful show for kids," she says, "because of its highly violent content. But worse than that, it's schizophrenigenic [crazy-making] because of the hypocrisy it demonstrates, presenting a half-hour of violence and then trying to undo it in 30 seconds."

Dr. Alperstein sees it differently.

"I'm convinced otherwise -- that violence on television does not correlate with real violence for most people," he says. "To the extent thatthe world is a violent world and this might reflect this violent world, that's part of what television does. I know my position is somewhat controversial because everyone has jumped on this violence bandwagon.

"I think we don't know yet what people are doing with that content. Few people are studying what's really going on in people's minds. What they tend to do is focus on the text of it and then say, 'Oh, there's violence here, therefore there must be something else happening.' "

Dr. Tom Bluett, pediatric psychologist at Beaumont Clinic in Greenbay, Wis., doesn't see violence as a problem with the "Power Rangers" either. He says to be affected by violent images, people must feel that this could really happen to them.

"When you get into something like this, this is corny," Dr. Bluett says. "There's nothing in there that really is threatening, that you feel would happen to you. And this is exactly the way the kids would take it. . . .

"So I don't recommend TV, but I'm realistic, and I realize kids are going to watch. And if they are going to watch it, I would rather have them see something like this that's upbeat, corny and that they're not going to have bad dreams about."

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