Say 'Eh-Oh': PBS To Air First TV Show for Toddlers

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Teletubbyland, a fantastical place of grassy hills, funny gadgets, and the gentle adventures of the colorful, huggable Teletubbies, is about to expand America's television landscape--and some child development experts aren't the least bit happy about it.

Produced in Britain, "Teletubbies" is set to debut on U.S. public-television stations April 6. Many media observers predict it will be the next "Barney & Friends," the preschool hit that parents love to hate and their children simply love.

Yet by making children as young as age 1 a key part of its target audience, the program is rekindling a debate on the proper role of television in young children's lives.

"As a professional, I think the effort to produce programming for 1- and 2-year-olds is discouraging and inappropriate," said Gillian D. McNamee, the director of undergraduate teacher education at the Erikson Institute, a graduate school and research center in Chicago for advanced study in child development.

The Second World Summit on Children's TV in London this month was buzzing about the series. The summit opened with Alice M. Cahn, the director of children's programming at PBS, debating the merits of "Teletubbies" with Ada Haug, a children's television official from Norway, which has chosen not to import it.

Ms. Haug said the 30-minute show, while entertaining, doesn't help them develop, a point Ms. Cahn said she disputed.

The program offers even the youngest TV viewers a variety of language and "something to wonder about and play with and connect with," Ms. Cahn said in a telephone interview last week.

Those are things they don't get today, she argued, because no other program on television is designed for an audience that young--even though toddlers spend a lot of time watching the small screen. PBS lists the program for children ages 1 to 4.

"We realized that younger and older siblings watch TV together," Ms. Cahn said. "Very often the younger children, while watching the preschool series, were the ones that weren't enjoying it or getting the most out of it."

'Again, Again!'

But many child-development experts say a program catering to 1-year-olds will tend to make television too large a part of a toddler's day. Most public TV stations will air the show daily, Monday to Friday.

"'Teletubbies' may be cute, harmless, and funny, but it's very destructive in the long run to put kids in front of TV," Ms. McNamee of the Erikson Institute said. "Their development hinges on [their] relatedness--on being connected and engaged with other people in an emotional and intellectual sense. [Watching] TV is not when people relate to each other; they relate to the TV screen."

Relating to television has a special meaning in "Teletubbies" because the characters, who act like toddlers, have TV screens on their bellies and antennas on the tops of their heads. At some point in every episode, the devices begin to glow--ticklishly--until one Teletubby's screen displays a video segment for all to view.

Technology is an important feature of the show because children live in a technological world, says Anne Wood, the co-creator of the series, which is produced by Ragdoll International Ltd., in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. "They're living in the midst of a technological revolution" that will change the world considerably by the time they are adults, Ms. Wood said on a publicity video for the program.

The video clips aired on the Teletubbies' tummies show real children doing some practical activity. In one segment, a girl demonstrates how she takes care of her horse and rides it properly.

"We always have children at the heart of the program," Ms. Wood said.

Even the sun that shines on Teletubbyland has the face of a real baby--who giggles and coos in response to the happenings below.

Most adults will find the program slow and repetitious. But toddlers will likely identify with the four Teletubbies, who skip, sing, and investigate like little ones. Should they want to hear or see something again, Teletubbies cry "Again, again!" until even long video segments are repeated.

Workshops Planned

The Teletubbies' style of speech--telegraphic sentences, with consonants smudged or left out--will also make toddlers feel right at home.

The use of baby talk was controversial in Britain until the debate was cooled by the show's soaring popularity there. The program's theme song "Say Eh-oh" (Telletubbyese for "hello") is a hit on the pop charts.

The baby talk dismays many U.S. child-development experts, however.

"Developmentally, at this stage, you [should] model the appropriate language until [children] get there," said Stephanie E. Glowacki, the deputy director of the accreditation department at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, based in Washington.

Carolyn S. Mackey, who teaches 3- and 4-year-olds at Small Savers, a Washington day-care center, said children that age are learning more than 3,000 words. "The more they can soak in the better," she said. "This [show] is not giving a lot of language skills."

Ms. Mackey and others questioned whether the show explained concepts adequately. In fact, "Teletubbies" never explains anything to viewers, which Ms. Cahn of PBS acknowledged might be baffling to adults at first.

But parents were initially baffled by "Barney & Friends," now a staple of public television, she pointed out.

Another similarity to "Barney" is the extensive merchandising campaign planned for "Teletubbies," which will fill store shelves with dolls and raise revenue for PBS.

PBS will offer workshops around the country for caregivers and parents on how to use "Teletubbies" with children. If adults watch the show with their children and talk to them about it, the developmental benefits are much higher, Ms. Cahn said.

David W. Kleeman, the executive director of the American Center for Children's Television in Des Plaines, Iowa, said "Teletubbies" was created with such careful design that it is likely here to stay.

"It is a program parents will respect even if they don't like it," he said.

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