A gallery owner who also ran a business to put on book fairs for children, in the 1960s Charren, who once worked at a New York City TV station, was dismayed at the quality of television shows that were aimed at children, such as her own. The three networks dominated television, and there was no such thing as Sesame Street. She described what she saw as “wall-to-wall monster cartoons,” punctuated by heavy advertising for toys and sugary cereals, often pitched by the shows’ hosts. To fight back, in 1968 she and a friend co-founded Action for Children’s Television, which held its first meeting in Charren’s Newton, Mass., living room.
The first word of the organization’s name was key: action. She pointed out that according to federal law, broadcasters were required to “serve the public interest” to keep their licenses. In the 1970s, Charren noticed that “One-third of the commercials [in children’s shows] were for vitamin pills, even though the bottles said, ‘Keep out of reach of children’ because an overdose could put them in a coma,” she said. ACT’s publicity of that fact caused vitamin makers to stop advertising to children. By 1973, the National Association of Broadcasters revised their code to limit ads on kiddie shows to 12 minutes per hour — and prohibited kid show hosts from pitching products. But it wasn’t until 1990 that ACT’s pressure really paid off: Congress passed the Children’s Television Act to govern advertising, and the content and quality of television shows, aimed at children. Satisfied, ACT disbanded in 1992. Charren was “the principal defender of children’s television in America,” said U.S. Senator Edward Markey, and “a conscience sitting on the shoulder of every commercial broadcaster.” In 1989, she was awarded the Emmy Trustees’ Award; in 1991 she received a Peabody award for Distinguished and Meritorious Public Service in broadcasting. And in 1995, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Charren died at her home on January 22, after suffering from vascular dementia. She was 86.