Cartoons for a Small Planet



Eve M. Kahn writes for The New Yorker, HG and other publications.

Blue-skinned flying heroes rescue dolphins trapped in tuna nets. Mutant Ninja Turtles recommend that viewers avoid standing for too long in front of open refrigerators. Teen-age journalists opt to print the school newspaper on recycled paper. Say goodbye to the Road Runner school of senseless cat-and-mouse chases: children's television has gone green.

Parents can now rejoice when youngsters rush to the TV set on Saturday mornings, and all adults can rest assured that the next generation will treat the planet more lovingly than we have. Right? Maybe. Debate is stirring among television observers. How long will the pro-environmental trend last? Will it have any effect on children, and how many toys will it sell?

"Environmentalism has become a kind of mini-bandwagon," said Herb Scannell, vice president of programming at Nickelodeon, the children's cable service. "The key to success in this business is doing what the other guy did." In three new live-action series on Nickelodeon, major characters will often worry about the planet's well-being.

Judy Price, vice president of children's programs and daytime specials at CBS, said: "You can't imagine how many environmental programs we were offered last year. Most of them were dreadful. There's a real danger of overkill on this issue, that the American public is going to get bored to tears and go deaf on us."

Three animated shows introduced in the past six months are being promoted mainly for their pro-environmental attitudes. In "Widget" (in syndication; Channel 9, Sundays, 9:30 A.M.; times given for syndicated shows are for the New York metropolitan area), a four-foot-tall purple alien metamorphoses into any shape necessary to save endangered species and other natural treasures. In "Captain Planet and the Planeteers" (Ted Turner's brainchild, co-produced by DIC Enterprises, on the cable service TBS and in syndication; TBS, Sunday, 8:35 A.M. and 5:35 P.M.; Channel 5, Saturday, 11 A.M.), a sky-blue superhero and his five racially diverse human assistants, battle eco-villains with names like Sly Sludge and Looten Plunder.

In "The Toxic Crusaders" (which recently had a trial run for summer syndication), a team of self-described "hideously deformed creatures of superhuman size and strength" with a leader named Toxie struggle against the forces of Dr. Killemoff. The doctor, a native of the planet Smogula, wants to defile the crusaders' home, Tromaville, "the last unpolluted town in New Jersey."

Other shows, though not directly focused on environmentalism, have also taken up the cause. On public television, "Sesame Street" and "3-2-1 Contact" have concentrated on the environment for the past year. Baloo the Bear, a familiar shambling figure from "The Jungle Book" who flies an airplane in "Tale Spin" (in syndication from Disney; Channel 11, Monday through Friday 4:30 P.M.), occasionally worries about air pollution and in one episode frees a talking whale from captivity. ABC's "New Kids on the Block" (Saturday, 10:30 A.M.), an animated series based on the pop group, has raised the subject of the vanishing forest, and its live-action counterpart on NBC, "Guys Next Door" (Saturday, 11:30 A.M.), has dealt with water conservation, recycling and the dangers of aerosol hairsprays.

During commercial breaks in children's programming, Fox broadcasts brief documentary portraits of endangered species, with young narrators describing the spots as "missions by the children of the planet to seek out and help protect the animals of the earth." On CBS, animated Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles provide "Turtle Tips," ways young viewers can contribute to the planet's health -- for example, never leave the water running while brushing your teeth. The Turtles' own show, which can be seen six days a week, does not concentrate on environmental issues, but the fictional creatures themselves owe their powers to accidental exposure to radiation.

Had enough? More pro-environmental series are in the works, including one starring a planet-saving extraterrestrial named Zen Intergalactic Ninja (no relation to the Turtles except that they share a licensing company).

It's not clear what effect this green barrage will have, and emotions on the subject run high. Ted Turner has expressed high expectations for "Captain Planet." "Hopefully, this program will make a big difference, because if it doesn't, there isn't much future for the species," he has said.

Skeptics include Phyllis Marcuccio, assistant executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. "A cartoon is entertainment, and what's in it kids don't take too seriously," she said.

Joe Chadbourne, president of the Institute for Environmental Education, a 20-year-old public education foundation in Cleveland, said: "These cartoons are probably just a fad, and they'll fade once the basic systems for recycling are in place. Kids are better off learning the subject in depth, through hands-on experience, by watching things being made or by visiting a waste-to-energy plant."

At the moment, neither "Captain Planet" nor "Widget" qualifies as a big hit. " 'Captain Planet' is doing well," said Tom Horner, a media director at the advertising agency Bozell who buys commercial time on children's programming. "It's no 'Ninja Turtles,' but it's certainly not a weak show." " 'Widget' is also respectable." And, referring to the fact that dozens of toys based on pro-environmental shows are now being manufactured, he added, "The products will help make people aware of the shows."

There's nothing new about children's entertainment reflecting adult concerns; it often does, partly to ingratiate itself with parents. The Three Stooges mocked Hitler in films 50 years ago; gullible flower children fell prey to conniving villains in "Batman" in the late 60's. In the health-conscious mid-70's, specials and public service announcements warned of the dangers of sugary foods, and for the past 15 years, minorities and women have been given more and stronger roles in cartoons.

What may be new this time around is that children helped inspire the programming. "Television got the idea from the kids," said Nick Byrne, a fifth-grade teacher in Closter, N.J., and founder of Kids Against Pollution, a three-year-old group of elementary school activists. Edward Palmer, author of "Television and America's Children: A Crisis of Neglect," said: "The future of the planet is very high on the list of subjects of interest to children today." But he was not convinced, he added, that pro-environmental shows would produce a passionately green generation. "Television chases issues that are already prominent, and it echoes rather than changes society," he said.

An utterly unscientific study of the impact of pro-environmental programs on young people -- a half-dozen interviews with elementary school students -- suggests that they do learn something, although subtleties may escape them. Elspeth Kulman, a 7-year-old from Clearwater, Fla., watched a high-tech segment of "Captain Planet" in which Duke Nukem tries to build a leak-prone secret nuclear plant. "I didn't understand a lot of what was going on," she said, "but I liked it when the bad guys were stopped."

Mollie Lief, an 8-year-old from the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, watched Captain Planet prevent Looten Plunder from damming a river in Africa and drying up dozens of animal watering holes. "The elephants, the birds, the fish, they have to have water," she said. "It's a good show to teach children." But would she buy a Captain Planet T-shirt? "That's not my style," she said. PLANET PRODUCTS

Toys and other merchandise based on "Widget," "Captain Planet," "The Toxic Crusaders" and "Zen Intergalactic Ninja" are coming soon to a store near you. The Toxic Crusaders' line is confined to neon-bright replicas of the protagonists and villains and their vehicles, including an Apocalypse Attackcopter that spews smog. Captain Planet's licensees, on the other hand, plan to follow the Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles' lead and blanket the nation with jewelry, clothes, lunch kits, stickers, posters, bedding and more. Over 50 companies have acquired permission to reproduce the Captain's image.

Many products will be packaged in partially or entirely recycled paper. On the backs of Captain Planet packages appear hints on helping the environment, duplicating some of the suggestions that the Ninja Turtles recite -- for example, children should cut up the six-holed plastic holders on six-packs of cans before throwing them out, to protect animals from potential strangulation.

The toys themselves, of course, are plastic. "We might see a 'Captain Planet' action figure washed up on a beach some day," said Dr. Helen Boehm, vice president of the Fox Children's Network.

Photo: Toxie, a doll based on "The Toxic Crusaders" (Troma Inc.) (pg. 30) Drawings: Widget (Zodiac Entertainment) and Captain Planet (TBS Productions), two of the new ecology-minded superheroes--Save the earth, sell more toys (pg. 29)

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