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And ketchup is a vegetable

Hey, kids, you thought Saturday morning television was just a bunch of cartoon characters zapping each other to smithereens with laser guns?

Well some television stations would like you (and your parents) to think again. Several consumer groups have discovered that, ostensibly in the name of complying with the 1990 Children's Television Act, stations around the country are stretching the bounds of imagination to justify their Saturday morning fare as educational.

Of Bucky O'Hare, a space rabbit who shoots alien toads, a new Orleans TV station wrote this: "Good doer Bucky" raises "issues of social consciousness and responsibility."

Of Yo, Yogi, a Detroit station wrote this: The main character's capture of "a bank-robbing cockroach" illustrates the principle of "using his head rather than his muscles."

Of Superboy, a Durham, N.C., station wrote this: The program "presents GOOD as it triumphs over EVIL."

Creative, to say the least, but even a 6-year-old could identify these attempts to provide quality, educational children's television programing as leg-pulling of the highest order. Just as disturbing, as reported by the New York Times, is the finding by the Center for Media Education that the few existing news and learning shows geared toward children often are aired before 7 a.m.

Unfortunately, the Children's Television Act is written too broadly, requiring stations to "serve the educational and informational needs of children" and to document their programing as a condition of license renewal. The Federal Communications Commission traditionally has yanked a license only for reasons such as a broadcaster's felony conviction.

"If G.I. Joe qualifies for what Congress was talking about," said Peggy Charen, founder of Action for Children's Television and tireless fighter for the legislation, "so does Batman, Spiderman, Thundercats and all the other shows stations have been showing for years."

Accepting lame characterizations of such cartoons as educational seriously undermines the intent of the law. At the least, the FCC should not let TV stations get away with spurious justifications. Better yet, Congress should fashion a stronger law. If Yo, Yogi is educational television, then ketchup is a vegetable.