Critics charge that these new games will turn the kids themselves into remote-controlled money monsters. "Any child who doesn't have the toy is going to know he's missing something," complains Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television. "It's like playing a video game without the joystick." The American Academy of Pediatrics also opposes the new toys, believing that they stifle an important element of child's play. "Games kids create for themselves teach mastery of their world, but these toys will sap their imaginations," says Dr. William H. Dietz, chairman of the academy's task force on children and television. "The term interactive should be in quotes. The television sells the toy to the child, and then the toy plays with the TV set."
Still, there may be something good to be said for these new gizmos: The technology behind them will fascinate couch potatoes of all ages. Among the most highly touted electronic creatures:
•Mattel's Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future (from about $20-$35). By firing an airplane-shaped gun at Captain Power on the screen, a child can pit himself against the evil Lord Dread. The child scores points against the interactive target that flashes on the screen. If the player misses the target too many times, he's in for a rude awakening. The TV signal can cause his toy pilot to eject from the cockpit at home. ("This toy allows the manufacturers to get out their aggressions, not the child's," declares Dr. Dietz.)
•Axlon's TechForce and the Moto-Monsters ($250). These computerized robots fight in battle plans programmed by the children. When the show is on, a TV opponent will play against the child, sending robots around the living room floor while the child tries to block the opponents' moves.
•Worlds of Wonder's Teddy Ruxpin ($59-$79). In a TV show that's still under wraps, the talking teddy bear will play interactive games with his young fans and other stuffed animals in the Worlds of Wonder line. Kids will not just react to the toys but will be able to influence the outcome of stories on TV.
•Disney Channel's Winky Dink and You. Yes, even the original star of interactive TV may get back in the act. On the air from 1953 to 1957, Winky Dink was a cartoon character whose secret messages could be deciphered by drawing on a special plastic sheet placed over the TV screen—or by drawing on the screen itself if parents refused to send money in for a Winky Dink Kit. The Disney Channel is considering a new, somewhat more sophisticated show based on the cartoon character.
Toy makers have spent two years developing interactive toys, which they say will fundamentally change the passive nature of TV watching. Aimed primarily at boys, the products will be delivered to stores this summer. The syndicated shows (produced by or with the toy makers) will follow in the fall, on stations across the country.
Responding to their critics, toy makers argue that kids will be able to watch the programs without playing with the products—and vice versa. "Kids can take aim at each other with their Captain Power toys," says Matt Bousquette, director of marketing for Mattel, "and the TV show won't have any audible bleeps to indicate when the game is being played." Still, buffeted by advertising and peer pressure, the Captain Powerless child will hear plenty of messages that tell him he's left out.
Interactive toys are the most direct connection yet conceived between TV and toy shelves. Kids have always clamored for Davy Crockett caps, Flintstone lunch pails and other merchandise featuring their favorite TV folk. But once upon a time TV shows created toys; now it's the other way around. After losing part of the kiddie audience to cable and video, the networks and local stations are finding profit in product-based shows—a strategy banned by the Federal Communications Commission until 1984. No fewer than 50 current Saturday-morning and afternoon cartoon shows are toy based, with manufacturers sharing in the profits. At the same time, children's dramatic specials and informational series—once regular features—have virtually disappeared. Reacting to the changes, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) and Rep. Tim Wirth (D., Colo.) have introduced bills requiring broadcasters to produce at least seven weekly hours of educational kidvid.
Toy companies, of course, claim that interactive playthings will be educational. "TechForce teaches kids basic programming and strategy skills," says Phil Quigley, Axlon's marketing chief. Critics, however, fear that the primary lessons will be more damaging. "These toys," charges Charren, "will create two classes of viewers, the haves and have-nots, and they'll be divided not through home video but over the public airwaves. If adults had to buy an extra electronic device to find out what happened on Dallas, you can bet they'd be screaming about it."
There probably aren't more than two or three parents in America who haven't wanted to kick the TV set after seeing He-Man, GoBots or one of the other toy commercials masquerading as children's cartoon shows. Those exasperated parents had better brace themselves, because beginning this fall the TV will be kicking back. Next season toy manufacturers will be introducing interactive shows on television, featuring a new generation of expensive electronic playthings designed to transform the family TV set into three-dimensional video games: Signals sent from the TV screen will activate toys in the living room. Not having the toys won't make the shows unwatchable, but in thousands of households it will make children's TV viewing something of a bummer.