Do Telly

For a little more than a year, twentysomething slackers in Britain have been dropping ecstasy or smoking pot and watching the BBC children's show Teletubbies. It's no wonder. The 30-minute program, which thanks to PBS invaded American airspace a week ago Monday, is three parts Barney, two parts Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a pastoral playland filled with asexual, costumed characters that scamper about; mechanical birds fly across a crayon-blue sky and everyday household items spring to life. Amorphous technological icons (microphones, windmills, etc.) pop up repeatedly, their utility seemingly finite, their symbolic potential limitless. The main characters--primary-colored "techno babies" named Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa, and Po--spew baby talk, view their computer-generated landscape through doe eyes, and play with cartoonish contraptions that make Tubby toast, dispense Tubby custard, and transport them through time. Best of all, these benevolent beasts have blank television screens where most creatures have a stomach. Halfway through every program (more than enough time for at least two healthy bong hits), a different Teletubby's screen lights up and serves as a conduit between Teletubbyland and "reality" (typically a Mr. Rogers-type vignette about washing dishes or ice-skating). The real and unreal bleeds together like tie dye.

Of course, the flacks from Teletubbies' U.S. distributor, The itsy-bitsy Entertainment Co., make no mention of the U.K.'s drug culture. Instead they focus on their target demographic: children between the ages of 1 and 6. "Teletubbies provides a new generation of television viewers--the youngest and the most impressionable--the opportunity to feel safe in and enjoy the ever-changing world," reads one itsy-bitsy press release. "Teletubbies is a celebration of play. In a world of technology, this new series introduces young children ages 1 and above to the wonders and magic of high-tech in a safe and friendly way."

After just one week on PBS's national schedule, the show--aired locally Monday through Friday at 10 a.m. on KTCA-TV (Channel 2)--is making headlines. National magazines have opined about pushing TV on toddlers. Web sites have popped up in an effort to decode the drug references. Last week Star Tribune TV critic Noel Holston was moved to describe the show as "unnervingly Orwellian." No doubt the controversy will intensify when the Teletubby dolls merchandising blitz starts.

Well, we've never been able to resist hype. But rather than sit around the office smoking pot and watching the show ourselves, we did what journalists always do: bribe a panel of experts to watch it for us. (Since management frowns on dope in the office, we offered milk and cookies instead.) Douglas Gentile, director of research at the National Institute on Media and the Family, had already seen a few episodes of Teletubbies and jumped at the chance to speak for his organization, which studies the media's impacts upon children. Another enthusiastic participant was Amy Susman-Stillman, a child psychologist and program coordinator at the Irving B. Harris Training Center for Infant and Toddler Development. We were able to persuade Bruce Jenkins, curator of film and video at the Walker Art Center, to sit in and evaluate the Teletubby aesthetic. For the true family perspective, we turned to Jeannine Ouellette Howitz, editor of City Pages' sister publication Minnesota Parent, who brought along her 2-year-old daughter Lillie and 5-year-old son Max. (Alas, her daughter Sophie is no longer in the target demographic.) Rounding out our roundtable was Mike Mosedale, a self-proclaimed slacker who spends his free time producing cursor.org, a Web site devoted to criticizing the local media. Last Friday afternoon, as we screened a videotape of the previous day's Teletubbies, our panel provided the commentary:

While most of our panelists listen intently to the promotional spot for KTCA and the brief intro from PBS that run at the outset of the half-hour programming block, Lillie squirms in her mother's lap and Max quietly picks apart a cookie.

JEANNINE: This show is on KTCA, so it's coming from a venue that I think parents traditionally look to as having a history of looking out for your kids. There's a trust relationship between parents and public TV. And this show seems to be sending a mixed message. On the one hand, parents are being told their kids should be watching less TV, that viewing should be delayed. Then public TV comes out with a show marketed specifically to very small children.

BRUCE: Maybe that's to the benefit of public TV. If more kids are watching, more parents are giving money. So in a way it's slightly self-serving.

AMY: Kids get hypnotized by what they see on TV. They may laugh or smile, and then the parents say, "Oh, they like it." Then that translates into, "If they like it, it must be a good thing. They should watch it."

JEANNINE: With public TV it's even more likely to play out that way. Because if the kid likes it, the parent will assume it's good for them because it's on public TV.

MIKE: That's what's so weird. This show is aimed at younger children more than anything we've ever seen before. Is there any TV show that seems to be directed so much at the sensibilities of infants?

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