Reagan: Transforming American Television

Reagan: Transforming American Television

By: David Seddon

September 6th, 2023

The Current has already covered how the political ideas of the 1980s influenced British television in another 2023 article by David Seddon. However, during a similar time period there was a parallel movement taking place in the United State. A specific decision made by Ronald Reagan, the 40th President, would shape not just television at the time but the media landscape decades afterwards. 

Ronald Reagan is known for a lot of historical influences, both during the time of his presidency and afterwards. He was considered to be particularly charismatic, and was even called “the Great Communicator” by some. He has also been remembered for his fervent anti-Soviet policies, and his military interventions in South American democracies. His anti-union practices have had ramifications that have lasted to this day. 

His broad economic policy has become known as “Reaganomics”. As investopedia succinctly covered, “[Reagan’s] economic policies called for widespread tax cuts, decreased social spending, increased military spending, and the deregulation of domestic markets.”

A pinnacle of his economic policy was the theory of “trickle down economics”, the idea that as the richest had access to most of their money, they would spend more, and this in turn would eventually benefit all below them. This was just one way that he thought that “free markets” would solve many of the US’s economic problems.

One of the biggest forces opposing the free market, at least in his mind, was government regulation. When it came to office the Federal Communications Commission was a force of TV regulation. The FCC was created in the 1930’s as a result of the Communications Act. The history of the FCC is complicated; it’s just important that the FCC served as a force to try and regulate all radio wave broadcasts, which included television.

When Reagan took office the goals of the FCC quickly changed. To quote an article from The First Amendment Encyclopedia, “the FCC changed gears during the Reagan administration to become a conduit for deregulation of both common carriers and the broadcast media.” This deregulation would have broader effects than Reagan probably could’ve predicted.

With Reagan’s changes, one thing that the FCC decided to do was completely remove barriers to advertising on children’s programming. This didn’t just mean that advertisers had free reign on what they could try to sell, it meant that they could create content designed specifically to sell things to children. As Earth Island Journal author Anna Lappe wrote, “a year after deregulation passed, the top ten best selling toys all had their own television shows, including Transformers, GI Joe, and Carebears.”

This is particularly fascinating, because while these shows are worthy of their own criticisms, they have also been more than a little influential in the space of not just children’s media, but general media. Movies based on the brand of the Transformers show have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars. And, the earliest Transformers movie, tied directly into the original show, has been a huge touchstone in the media for many people.

Youtube video essayist Hbomberguy posted a feature length video discussing his feelings about the Transformers movie, currently at over 1.7 million views. One of the most controversial decisions the movie made was to kill the protagonist leader Optimus Prime onscreen after a long battle with the series antagonist. This decision was so shocking for those that saw it, that it has been talked about even as recently as February 2023. The reason why they killed Prime was purely a marketing decision

This point highlights the interesting media situation that arose from this shift in zeitgeistm during Raegan’s administration, among the creators of children’s media. When a show is created not just to entertain or teach children, but to sell product, it’s going to shift the decisions that content creatives make. Not only that, but children are particularly more vulnerable to advertising when compared to adults. That added angle adds a level of ethical concern to the situation.

Nowadays it doesn’t feel like as many shows are made explicitly to sell products to children, but the lasting effects of this era don’t feel completely gone either. One show that was released during this era of advertising was He-Man: Masters of the universe. In 2018, a new show called She-Ra and the Princesses of Power was released as a spin-off to the original series, and has received overwhelmingly positive support. While the show might be good, the roots of its popularity directly come from not an artistic drive, or at least not a pure one, but the simple desire to first sell toys to children. 

It’s impossible to fully state what the effects of this media landscape has had on the development of kids, or what effect will be had by people referring back to that time nostalgically when making their own art. What is indisputable is that the effects of one sitting US president shaped the media in a way that might initially seem to be far outside the powers of the executive branch. It’s worth remembering this going forward, and making sure to fully consider the policy ramifications of politicians who are elected.

David Seddon is a senior undergraduate student with a major in professional and public writing and a minor in Chinese. A big fan of fantasy and sci-fi, David can often be found playing games, reading books or working on his own self-published books in his free time.