February 01, 1982 12:00 PM

For 26 years Captain Kangaroo has been as much a part of America’s preschool breakfast routine as soggy cornflakes. No more. Last week CBS booted the kindly Captain, Bob Keeshan, 54, into a predawn 6:30 a.m. time slot and expanded its struggling Morning news show to compete head to head with ABC’s Good Morning America and NBC’s Today. The move seems to signal the eventual demise of one of TV’s longest-running children’s shows and the end of all daily kidvid programming on the major networks. “CBS’ New Year’s resolution must have been to behave like Scrooge,” fumes Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children’s Television. “Nobody will want the show at 6:30. The Captain doesn’t deserve the dishonorable discharge he’s getting.”

“They said 6:30 or nothing at all,” notes Keeshan, who as part of his new 20-month CBS contract will receive lucrative syndication rights to more than 300 hours of Captain Kangaroo tapes. “I really did think about just walking away from it. I don’t have to work anymore. But,” he adds, “somebody has to do this kind of programming for young people.”

Even the Captain admits that “the economics of [morning] television have changed tremendously.” When the Captain first opened his Treasure House on Oct. 3, 1955, he had no real competition. ABC wasn’t even on the air at that hour, and NBC was featuring adult fare on Today. “We had all the children in the world,” recalls Keeshan. Since then the value of morning air time has soared to $20,000 per advertising minute. Sitcom reruns are more profitable for local stations than kiddie shows, and only about half of CBS’ affiliates have said they will air Kangaroo at 6:30. “Kangaroo has had an eroding audience over the past five years,” says Gene Mater, CBS vice-president for policy. “A later time was becoming unaffordable.” “It’s easy to make CBS sound like a villain,” Keeshan admits, “but they could have dumped me completely. What are ABC and NBC doing on a daily basis for children?” (The answer is, not much. “We’re not going to take away a soap opera for a kids’ program,” says an ABC executive. Echoes an NBC spokeswoman, “There’s more audience for news than for kids’ shows.”)

Keeshan, who is following a strict diet and exercise regimen since his heart attack last July, has lost 30 pounds—but not his zeal to battle for kids’ air time. “The Federal Communications Commission used to care about children’s television,” he says. “Now, under the Reagan Administration, the situation is laughable.” But Keeshan reserves his fiercest rebuke for parents. “If parents had raised a ruckus, the affiliates would have listened,” he says. “Parents just use television as a baby-sitter.” Though the Captain may be forced to hang up his scarlet blazer, Keeshan is determined to find channels for small-fry shows, perhaps on cable TV. “We like to think we represent permanent values,” he says. “They can take me off the air, but I’m not ready to call it quits. If I were, I’d be home on Long Island tending the lilies in my greenhouse.”

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