The Trouble With Teletubbies

"If Public Television doesn't do it, who will?" —PBS motto

Public television's pithy tag line is meant to have positive connotations—innovating, filling a void, performing a vital public service. But the slogan took on ironic overtones last year when it appeared on advertisements heralding the arrival of Teletubbies, the first television program ever broadcast in the United States for a target audience of children as young as 12 months.

Teletubbies features a huggable band of four alien toddlers who have televisions in their tummies. Their heads are topped by antennae conveniently sized to fit in a baby's grasp—kind of like plush rattles. As the Teletubbies babble in a language sounding a lot like toddler talk, they frolic in a lush, fairy tale–like landscape. Under the watch ful eyes of a blue-eyed, giggling baby ensconced in a glowing sun, they interact with things of great interest to young children—a butterfly, a giant ball, or a toaster. One of the program's main characters is a vacuum cleaner. The Teletubbies' TV-tummies show films of real toddlers and caring adults playing games or fixing bicycles.

The combination of space twaddle, endless repetition, and toddler antics gives the show a kind of fey, otherworldly aura, but it's a mistake to dismiss Teletubbies as a weird, frivolous bit of entertainment. The program is extremely popular among both children and parents.

PBS imported Teletubbies from the BBC last year and is aggressively marketing the program as educational for "children as young as one." Teletubbies took a slot in the PBS Ready to Learn service, a block of programming created to help preschool children acquire skills that will enable them to get ready for school. The Ready to Learn service works with day care providers to enhance the educational value of its programs. Providers are encouraged to show PBS programs to the children in their charge and engage in constructive post-viewing activities related to each program.

Created by a speech pathologist and a former schoolteacher turned television producer, Teletubbies is supposed to, among other things, help preverbal children develop language and become comfortable with technology. Publicity materials for the program claim that it stimulates toddlers' imaginations and facilitates their motor development.

Teletubbies recently achieved brief notoriety when the Reverend Jerry Falwell insisted that Tinky Winky, the purple Tubby with a triangle-shaped antenna who frequently carries a purse, is damaging children's morals by modeling a gay life style. Unfort unately, Falwell's preposterous, homophobic attack fuels the wrong controversy.

What's worrisome about Teletubbies is that, to date, there is no evidence to support its producers' claims that the program is educational for one-year-olds. There is no research showing that the program helps babies learn to talk. There's none to suggest that it facilitates motor development in 12-month-olds. There is no data to substantiate the claim that young children need to learn to become comfortable with technology. In fact, there is no documented evidence that Teletubbies has any educational value at all. When asked about research, people associated with Teletubbies respond that studies show how much children and parents like the program. That may be so. The fact that children like something, or parents think they do, does not mean that it is educational, or even good for them. Children like candy, too. Given the lack of research, why would PBS import a television program for one-year-olds that has no proven educational value?

PBS Under Siege

In 1995, when PBS survived the near-fatal attack on its funding by congressional Re pub li cans, fans of educational, noncommercial television heaved a sigh of relief. PBS officials, facing immediate cutbacks in federal funds and looking at the likelihood of even less government funding in the future, decided to seek other sources of revenue. Four years later, PBS, a consortium of local public television stations, seems to be flourishing. But at what cost? The effects of diminished and ever-threatened government funding are taking their toll on PBS as a noncommercial broadcasting service, and are affecting its educational mission as well.


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Since its inception in 1967, PBS has been fraught with struggles for funding that have made it continually vulnerable to commercial exploitation. When the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television drafted what became the blueprint for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB)—the conduit through which federal funds flow to PBS—Congress rejected the commission's suggestions that a substantial, ongoing source of funds be made available to CPB.

As a result, PBS has always walked a fine line regarding corporate underwriting. By the mid-1970s, public television was receiving over $7 million a year from oil companies alone. During this time, although PBS had its critics on the right and the left, it did a good job building a reputation for providing thoughtful, high-quality, noncommercial television. Its children's programming, including educational innovations such as Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, Sesame Street, and Reading Rainbow, was justifiably lauded by parents and educators as a trusted oasis in a desert of commercial hype.

Cable stations—which provide a wide range of options for viewers, including programs designed to be educational—are not a viable alternative to public television because consumers are required to buy access to the programming. PBS is available to homes regardless of income and, contrary to charges by those who would destroy public television, its audience is broad and diverse, especially in children's programming. According to statistics from the CPB, 88 percent of all preschoolers and 80 percent of kindergartners watch public television. Viewing PBS children's programs is only slightly less common among children whose parents have less than a high school education and poverty-level or near-poverty-level incomes than among children whose parents have more education and higher incomes. Young children who live in communities with high concentrations of child poverty are as likely to be viewers of PBS programming as preschoolers and kindergartners living in areas with less child poverty. Given that poor children watch more television than middle-class children and are more likely to use it as a primary means of learning about the world, access to free educational programming can serve a powerful, essential function in their lives.

After 1995, PBS officials hopped on a fast track toward reinventing the Public Broadcasting Service as a kinder, gentler version of its commercial siblings. Exactly a year later, PBS announced that Masterpiece Theatre, the acclaimed drama series, would be called Mobil Masterpiece Theatre. Promotional spots that look an awful lot like commercials began to appear at the beginning and end of programs. PBS, which had already begun forming partnerships with for-profit companies, intensified its efforts in that direction. Microsoft, Devillier Donegan Enterprises (a part of Disney/ABC Television), and the Turner Broad casting System are a few of the companies commercially linked to PBS. In a 1998 memo to station managers, PBS notified personnel that "corporate sponsorship" could, in some cases, be an acceptable acknowledgment for major corporate underwriters.

PBS executives now refer to the Public Broad casting Service as "the new PBS." Their 1998 annual report, with the theme, "Doing good while doing well," reflects an organization defining itself in the language of the marketplace. Potential corporate investors are pitched the concept of PBS as a "brand." Meanwhile, PBS officials continue to encourage the American public to think of the Public Broadcasting Service as a purveyor of noncommercial broadcasting.

PBS officials take the position that loosening restrictions on corporate underwriting, actively seeking corporate funding, and engaging in commercial, revenue-generating partnerships, is the only way PBS can survive in a climate of diminished government support, escalating production costs, and a cutthroat media marketplace. They may be right. Most proponents of public television feel that corporate underwriting messages at the end of programs are a small price to pay for the quality broadcasting they have come to expect from PBS. But Teletubbies represents a major programming decision that has the potential to negatively affect the lives of millions of young children.

The Impact of Teletubbies

According to reliable sources, PBS has commissioned research on Teletubbies, but conducting such research is likely to be problematic. Because a 12-month-old's speech is rudimentary at best, it will be extremely difficult for researchers to determine exactly what meaning Teletubbies has for them, or what, if anything, they are learning from the show. According to Dorothy Singer, codirector of the Yale University Family Television Research and Con sultation Center, the center does not usually conduct research with children much younger than two and a half.

In fact, there is very little research on babies and television at all. There is some evidence that they attend, at least intermittently, to television. There is some data that they can imitate vocalizations produced on television, and that children as young as 14 months can imitate simple actions. Research also suggests that children as old as two, unlike their three-year-old counterparts, have significant difficulty applying televised information to reality. We are only beginning to understand what television really means to the very young.

What is known about how children under two learn and develop suggests that they should spend most of their time actively engaged in exploring the world using all of their senses. Because we don't know what, if anything, very young children gain from viewing television, and because it has been demonstrated that watching television can be habituating, it is irresponsible for PBS to encourage parents to expose their children to it at such an early age. Studies also show that excessive television viewing is correlated with poor school performance and childhood obesity. Citing the importance of early brain development in the lives of children, the potential negative effects of television, and the lack of research about its impact on babies, the American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a strong recommendation that children under two should not watch television.

PBS officials argue that children under two are watching television anyway, and that it's better for them to have a program created especially for them. A host of child development experts disagree, including Singer and Dan Anderson, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts who has done extensive research on children's television. According to Anderson, it's not quite true that one-year-olds are already watching television. Anderson states that "children under two don't watch television in a sustained way and current research suggests that they may understand it differently from older children. In fact, we don't know very much at all about how babies and toddlers understand television."

It may be that one-year-olds spend time in front of the television, and may sometimes even be engaged by it. But babies are not turning it on themselves out of some inherent need. Nor are they likely to be clamoring for a favorite program. Babies, unlike older children, are not subject to peer pressure to buy into popular culture. Even if all of their day care buddies are watching the tube, one-year-olds don't discuss programs around the juice table. In fact, the first two years of life are about the only time that parents can easily avoid struggles with their children about television and tie-in toy marketing.

One-year-olds are subjected to television because their parents, day care providers, or older siblings turn it on in their presence. Before Teletubbies, this happened when siblings were watching, when parents were watching the news or other adult programming, or when harried parents used TV as a way of getting a break. If a baby's exposure to television were limited to one half-hour program a day, it's unlikely that the experience would be harmful. But now that one-year-olds have a program "designed especially" for them, it is likely that they will be exposed to it in addition to, not instead of, whatever they were exposed to before. And because, as PBS publicity materials state, parents trust PBS to provide age-appropriate educational programming, it's very possible that parents who don't realize that age-appropriate television for one-year-olds might well be an oxymoron are now actively encouraging their youngest children to watch it. The success of Teletubbies means that, in an industry known for copycat programming, we can look forward to a whole raft of other programs geared toward babies.

It's easy to see how PBS officials could be tempted by a program like Teletubbies. The series is an enormous hit in Britain. In 1997, Teletubbies were the hottest-selling toys in the United Kingdom, and merchandising around the program generated 23 million pounds for the BBC.

At the 1995 congressional debates, Republicans chided PBS for not benefiting from the huge amount of money Barney, the popular purple dinosaur, was making for its parent company. Nor did PBS initially get money from licensing of Sesame Street merchandise. PBS will not make that mistake again. It has renegotiated deals with the Children's Television Workshop and with the Lyons Group, the producers of Barney. And product sales from Sesame Street alone added $14 million to PBS coffers in 1997.

Given the enormous popularity of programs like Arthur and Barney, it's not surprising that corporate interest in children's programming on PBS has been growing. American children influence about $50 billion of spending a year and spend $9 billion of their own money. They account for 70 percent of retail sales for licensed properties. Brand loyalty begins early and children are seen increasingly as a legitimate and lucrative target for marketing.

According to Peter Downey, PBS senior vice president for program business affairs, guidelines for corporate underwriting of children's programs were changed two years ago, when Libby's Juicy Juice began underwriting Arthur. Up until then, there had been little corporate interest in underwriting PBS children's shows.

At present, PBS has relatively few product licensing and merchandising policies—although PBS does now require that copyright owners share whatever financial benefits are created from these deals. According to Downey, PBS has learned from experience that its interests and copyright owners' interests are usually in line, since no one wants to offend parents or viewers.

Downey's viewpoint is worrisome. It is true that as long as copyright holders and PBS officials share a goal of not offending parents or viewers, their interests will be in line. But the primary interest of a public, educational children's television pro gram should always be to educate children and promote their well-being. While copyright owners may share that goal, their interest in a particular program might extend only as far as making money without offending viewers, and not to careful scrutiny of the actual educational value of the show's content.

In 1999, most new children's programming on PBS is funded, at least in part, by corporate sponsors or product licensing. An officer of the Children's Television Workshop has been heard to say that the critically acclaimed program Ghostwriter went off the air because it was built around an invisible main character and therefore didn't have much to sell.

Given that PBS provides a block of programming for children that consistently promotes diversity and nonviolence, and given the very real threat that Congress will cut off its funds, it may seem counterproductive for people who care about children to publicly criticize PBS. Therefore, when the Child ren's Television Workshop began aggressively marketing Sesame Street products, there was not much outcry. When Lancit Media, producers of The Puzzle Place, a program created to promote diversity, signed deals with Toys "R" Us and Payless Shoes, no one balked. Even when Sesame Street characters began to turn up in commercials for Kmart and Ford Windstar, responses were mostly muted. Public television was doing what it needed to do to survive, and popular PBS shows like Sesame Street and Arthur provided prosocial programming alternatives to network television fare. The advent of commercials before and after children's programs created more grumbles, but vigilant parents could tape the shows and eliminate the commercials. Most felt that PBS programs had both integrity and demonstrable educational content and allowed children to watch television while avoiding the frequent commercial breaks and violence that characterized most commercial broadcasting.

But Teletubbies steps over an important line. It violates a fundamental tenet of PBS's noncommercial mission. When Mister Rogers' Neighbor hood and Sesame Street first appeared on PBS in the late 1960s, there were already programs on commercial stations that were aimed at preschool children. PBS was providing an alternative for children by airing prosocial, nonviolent programming based on sound educational and developmental theory. In targeting one-year-olds, Teletubbies is not luring children away from commercial television. It is creating a new market.

Selling the Tubbies

Teletubbies arrived in the United States in a swirl of publicity that Kenn Viselman, president and chief executive officer of itsy bitsy Entertainment, which holds the American licensing rights on the program, described as "more advance press than Titanic." Advertisements appeared on city buses. Magazines geared toward parents also carried ads. Television talk shows like Good Morning America and major newspapers and news magazines carried interviews with Viselman, Alice Cahn (who was then the director of PBS Children's Programming), and Anne Wood, the show's creator and head of Ragdoll Productions, the producer of the program.

Teletubbies landed here with some baggage from Britain. The show had created a swirl of controversy, mostly about whether the made-up language used by the Teletubbies was actually beneficial to children. Teletubbies represents a first-time collaboration between BBC Children's Programs, BBC Education, and BBC Worldwide, the corporation's commercial branch. From the beginning, it was intended for the world market, and is now distributed in over 50 countries.

Supported by an annual licensing fee on television sets, the BBC has long been held up as a model of public television success and integrity. In recent years, however, the BBC has been subject to commercial competition from satellite and cable companies, a dwindling audience share, and pressure to revoke the licensing fee. They are also funneling a great deal of their funding into new digital broadcasting technology. Reports from Britain indicate that the BBC intends to use Teletubbies as a model for raising money. They are hoping for another megahit in a new program about dinosaurs, featuring animatronic figures with lots of licensing possibilities.

Teletubbies was also the center of great debate at the Second World Summit on Television for Children in London, where Ada Haug, the head of preschool television programming in Norway, called the program the most commercial she had ever seen, and announced that it would not be shown on Norwegian public television. At that session, in March 1998, Cahn and Wood staunchly defended Teletubbies. When asked directly about the target audience for Teletubbies, Wood replied that the program was for two-year-olds. Given that PBS was already marketing the program to an audience of one-year-olds, it is interesting that neither she nor Cahn corrected this misstatement.

From a marketing standpoint, PBS is an ideal venue for Teletubbies. In a climate of apparent concern over the effect of media on children following passage of the Children's Television Act, President Clinton's recent conference on children and television, and concern about content ratings and the V-chip, it would be hard for a commercial station to convince American parents that their motives for producing a program for one-year-olds were in any way altruistic.

Viselman once likened PBS to "the Good House keeping Seal of Approval." It's an analogy PBS would do well to steer clear of. The publishers of Good Housekeeping were once sued by the Federal Trade Commission for selling the seal to corporations eager to boost sales. Now the seal is limited to products advertised in the magazine. In an interview in the New York Times, Viselman predicted, "If this [Teletubbies] isn't the most important toy at Christmas this year, then something desperately wrong will have happened."

Viselman has also opined that Teletubbies was designed to recognize and provide programming for an underserved audience of very young children. To say that one-year-olds are "underserved," a term usually associated with people needing and not getting adequate health care or social services, implies that Teletubbies is serving a need—that babies need to watch television. He carries this almost missionary zeal to the whole arena of product licensing: "The idea of creating an extension of the viewing experience for the child is very important," he said in the Los Angeles Times. "When you don't put out any product at all, you're doing as great a disservice to your audience as putting too much product out into the market."

Viselman waxed enthusiastic about the predicted popularity of Teletubbies merchandise: "You're looking at a major multimillion-dollar property," he told Time. Meanwhile, Cahn was quoted in Current as saying, "Merchandising was never, ever a consideration in choosing that show. Educational content was always first and foremost in our minds." This statement is puzzling, given Teletubbies' proven commercial track record in Great Britain and the lack of research about the program's educational value. In addition, while many of the program's stated educational goals sound promising, they do not stand up to close scrutiny:

Teletubbies offers a new generation of television viewers—the youngest and most impressionable—the opportunity to feel safe in and enjoy the ever-changing world. —PBS

We're especially excited about the Teletubbies website because the television series is designed to help young children become comfortable with technology. —Alice Cahn

[Children watching Teletubbies] . . . will feel more confident, I think, to play, and more reassured to play. —Anne Wood

These three statements are reminiscent of the advertising technique that suggests to potential buyers that they have a defect they can cure by buying a product. Each implies that children begin life with a deficit—a deficit that, in fact, doesn't exist. There is no evidence to show that children raised in a technological world are uncomfortable with technology. There is no evidence that children raised with what the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott would call "good enough parenting" do not feel confident in a changing, evolving world. Nor is there evidence that these same children do not feel confident to play. In fact, play comes naturally to children as their form of exploration and learning about the world. The capacity to play can be squelched by a child's environment, and it can be reinforced, but it does not have to be taught.

We don't know what PBS's cut of Teletubbies merchandising is, but toy industry analysts predict that Teletubbies toys will generate $2 billion this year. Teletubbies were the top-selling plush toy over Christ mas, and among the best-selling toys overall. Teletubbies had a half-hour slot on QVC, the home shopping channel, which completely sold out of its products. Teletubbies books, published by Scholastic, have been at the top of several children's best-seller lists, including Scholastic and Barnes & Noble. Teletubbies videos are also at the top of various charts.

Meanwhile, the Teletubby phenomenon is only just beginning. Teletubbies has a deal with Microsoft to develop interactive toys that relate to the television program. Teletubbies software also has implications for the controversy over lapware—computer software for babies to use while sitting on their parent's lap. Again, while the product's link to PBS will encourage parents to believe that it is safe and educational, there is no evidence to show that this is the case.

While Teletubbies is aimed at one-year-olds, even younger children are "watching" it. Viselman claims that younger babies will learn from it is as well. Indeed, the Teletubbies marketing strategy includes newborns. On September first last year, PBS Kids, itsy bitsy Entertainment, Ragdoll Productions, and Warner Home Video celebrated the release of Teletubbies videos by making "Teletubby Gift Packs" available to babies born on that day. Hospitals all over the country distributed the packs, including a copy of the two videos, Here Come the Teletubbies and Dance With the Teletubbies, and a mini-Teletubby plush toy from Hasbro. No doubt many new parents were grateful for the gift, but are these "gift packs" beneficial to newborns? Or is this an example of extremely successful niche marketing aimed at the commercial exploitation of infants? That PBS would engage in this kind of unfettered marketing strategy compromises its mission to put educational benefits and public interest first. Compromising that mission would do a terrible disservice to children and parents who trust PBS and turn to its programming as a much needed alternative to commercial television.

Commercial Lite

Given the power of television to persuade and educate, and given its ubiquitous presence in our lives, Americans need a public broadcasting system that is not driven by commercial interests. Unless public television becomes a priority for the federal government, PBS officials will, of necessity, intensify their pursuit of commercial partnerships.

The government needs to find ways to fund public television that free it and its viewers from commercial exploitation. Ironically, while it has been funding public television inadequately, the federal government has always given financial support to its commercial counterpart. James Ledbetter, in Made Possible By . . . The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States, describes one significant federal subsidy to commercial stations:

When the FCC . . . came up with rules for "digitizing" the broadcast spectrum in April 1997, consumer advocates charged that the holders of broadcast licenses received a 10-year, interest-free loan worth as much as $70 billion—an amount that dwarfs the sum that the feder al government has spent on public broadcasting since its 1967 inception. FCC chairman Reed Hundt . . . called it "the biggest single gift of public property to any industry in this century." Congressional supporters of the "free market" in communications did not complain.

Ledbetter also mentions the subsidy the federal government provides to Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, relics of the Cold War that bring American culture to foreign countries. In addition, he notes that advertising is tax-deductible for commercial industries. He and several other media writers suggest taxing commercial television and radio advertising as one method to raise money for public television. In a 1994 piece in the New York Times, PBS producer Alvin Perlmutter estimated that a 1 percent tax on the gross annual revenues of commercial television stations would just about match the money the government gave to support public broadcasting that year.

Other options Ledbetter suggests are: levying an excise tax on television sets, which is now the way many European countries fund public television

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