Time for 'Teletubbies'

For a time, Barney the purple dinosaur was the favorite whipping boy on television. Now it's Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Po, and Laa-Laa's turn. With antennas on their heads, TV sets on their tummies, and pear-shaped bodies, the friendly "Teletubbies" are easy to mock.

That's just what some Internet jokesters and TV critics are doing this week as the program debuts on PBS stations nationwide.

"Teletubbies," already a hit with the youngest children in Britain, is now hoping to capture the hearts of babies in America. Yes, babies. Aimed at teaching words and concepts to one- and two-year-olds while celebrating play, the show marks the first time the diapered set has been a target audience for TV.

Parents and educators voice some real concerns. When "Teletubbies" first aired in Britain a year ago, parents protested that the adorable aliens, who say "cooter" for scooter and "brella" for umbrella, would keep their little ones from learning proper English.

And several attendees at last month's Second World Summit on Television for Children in London called the show a blatant marketing tool.

Others, such as children's television activist Peggy Charren, believe babies shouldn't be watching TV at all. "The best television for one-year-olds is no TV," she said recently. The respected Mrs. Charren finds it "peculiar to design a program for people who have to be propped up to watch it."

To her, I say right on. As a parent, I understand the temptation to switch on the electronic baby sitter now and then, but babies don't need such sophisticated stimulation. They are easily entertained by simpler pleasures.

But co-creator Anne Wood argues that low-tech amusement isn't enough anymore. "Children today are growing up in a technological revolution," she says. "Television is the first piece of technology they encounter. It's a magical box in the corner for them. And they need to be friendly with the screen."

Ms. Wood's company in the United Kingdom, Ragdoll Productions, and New York's itsy bitsy Entertainment Co., which distributes the program, are already making deals for Teletubby dolls, books, videos, and even a fast-food chain.

As the Teletubbies themselves would say, "Uh-oh."

But maybe, just maybe, "Teletubbies" will usher in a new world of educational television for the very young. We'll see.

Please let us know what you think at wolcott@csmonitor.com

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