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, 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?

DOUG: Yes. All prime-time sitcoms.

The sun rises on Teletubbyland. At the center of the sun is a smiling baby's face. We meet the Teletubbies and watch them play in a kind of cave, where the creatures pour Tubby custard out of a giant contraption into a space-age bowl and carry it to a kitchen table. This exercise is repeated three times. Eventually the Teletubbies spill the custard and slip and fall. Max giggles and later says this is his "favorite part." (Lillie, on the other hand, seems a bit uncomfortable with the scene's other-worldly quality. Still, she is mesmerized.)

BRUCE: The baby's face in the sun is classic. Primitive film often involves structures in which someone is looking. It's about what we see, giving us perspective. They're trying to map out who this is for and what it's about. And the garden metaphor [the sun] is an icon for a lot of kids' stories and kids' toys.

DOUG: I'll take a lower-brow approach. There is research into what attracts a kid's attention. And the things that come up in many studies are women's voices, kids' voices, pictures of kids, babies, and sound effects. All the things that research says attract kids' attention are in there.

MIKE: It's like a Videodrome for kids.

AMY: I think the pace is interesting. They're trying to mimic the way in which they think infants think and see things happen. Most shows don't go that slowly or try to mimic the way infants think.

BRUCE: It does look kind of strange and different. It's very spare. There aren't many elements. I'm amazed how spare the set is. It reminds me of those '50s kids' shows when they didn't have any money so the sets weren't dressed. I think it's spare so the kids don't have a lot to process. There's also a kind of parody of technology in this even though it's set in this hygienic post-whatever. Even though it's about using technology, there's a kind of slight theme that's not necessarily anti-technology but a cartooning or parodying of technology.

MIKE: Yeah, like the sounds the machines make. They're very organic. It's like a strange kind of potty humor.

Outside the cave a windmill begins to spin and spark. One of the Teletubbies' TV-stomachs clicks to life and we can see children ice-skating on his screen. The camera zooms in on the stomach, and suddenly we're at a skating rink with real kids, ages 4 to 10. The kids skate a routine and then, after a brief interlude, the same video clip is repeated. Max later says he thinks the kids are actually in the Teletubby's stomach, not on TV. Lillie just seems relieved to be watching real people.

DOUG: It's designed very carefully to help train children how to watch TV. The spinning windmill signals something's going to change, something new is going to happen now, we're switching stories. It's training awareness on how to watch something. It has close-ups and long shots, close-ups and long shots.

MIKE: It's a video literacy program. Is that a good thing or a sinister thing?

BRUCE: If this were Sesame Street you'd say, "Hey someone screwed up the videotape, they have the same thing going again." It's really a kind of user-training manual for this show and, by extension, for other kinds of television entertainment. I don't know if that's good or bad, but for anyone over the age of 5 it would be totally boring. They've already learned the protocols of watching. You don't need to have the repetition. It's like an eye-training film for very new viewers.

AMY: The repetition is what caught me. Kids love routine, need routine. They like the same songs and stories over and over again. It actually helps neural pathways get laid down. But I think there's a distinction between repetition when you can use your imagination--when you hear the story over and over and have your own ideas about it--versus seeing the exact same thing over and over again.

JEANNINE: It feels different to read a story again. It may be the same story, but there'll be a difference in the reading, even if you read it two times in a row, back to back. The voice is different, the pace is different. On this show it's exactly the same.  

AMY: Reading is still more of a social experience, no matter how many times you have that repetition.

DOUG: It's like Albert Einstein said: "If you want your children to be brilliant, read them fairy tales. If you want your children to be more brilliant, read them more fairy tales."

Back in Teletubbyland, Tinky Winky and crew serve some more custard, do a dance, then wave goodbye. Again, each activity is repeated at least twice. Max and Lillie are visibly distracted. The adults are bored. Mike wonders aloud why a dope smoker would even bother tuning in. "I'd rather watch a sales guy on QVC," he says.

BRUCE: Interest on the part of the drug culture makes some sense. It reminds me of going to the Fillmore East and they would do animation between sets. One of the favorite things were fantasy cartoons done in the '30s that often dealt with babies--an infantile fantasy world where flowers and bees would come together and help children. They were visually quite rich and beautiful. This is in the same vein. It's not narratively challenging, but hey, if you miss something you get to see it again.

MIKE: [Laughing] Yeah, I guess I can see the novelty appeal on some level.

BRUCE: What's more striking is the distinct lack of content. If I had to put it on a spectrum, I'd give Mr. Rogers a 10 and give this a two. Mr. Rogers dealt with much more important problems than, say, a spill. Since these characters have so little in common with the kids that watch it--they don't have bodies, they don't have needs and desires--there's a very constrained range of ideas. It's that spareness that I find most disappointing.

AMY: For young children, learning is about curiosity and exploration. It's hands-on. When you put kids in front of this, you're sending them a different message about how they're supposed to learn, when maybe that's not their natural inclination for learning.

DOUG: The producers say, "Kids this age are already watching TV, we should have something that's age-appropriate for them." Well, that argument is somewhat disingenuous. Kids this age, at least 1-year-olds, are not watching TV the same way an older child is watching TV. They are more interested in social engagement. They're more interested in object play. So what does it mean to train a 1-year-old to watch TV? What does it mean to train them to be media consumers much younger than they would've normally? It may be that if parents are putting their 1-year-olds in front of this, they're going to sit together as a family and learn these great media habits that will carry over into other shows--that parents will be more engaged in what their kids are watching and the children will learn to selectively watch certain programs that are appropriate for them. It could be a boon. On the other hand, parents may just plop their kids in front of it and use it as a baby-sitter. And if it teaches children to have an appetite for TV younger than they would have anyhow, the problem still remains that there's not age-appropriate TV. And so if you train a 1-year-old to want to watch TV and then half an hour isn't enough, then they're going to see more inappropriate TV at a younger age than they ever would have without this show.

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