Eh-oh!

Bridging real world and toddler fantasy, Teletubbies reaches youngest audience

By Karen Everhart Bedford

Teletubby on a happy walkOver the hills and far away, Teletubbies come to play.

In Teletubbyland, a lush green landscape of undulating hills spotted with clumps of bright flowers, the world is safe and fun — a place to explore and learn through play.

We know this because the sun baby, who rises over the set at the beginning of each episode, gurgles, coos and shrieks with pleasure at the adventures of the Teletubbies, four alien yet adorable, toddlerlike beings who live there, cared for and entertained by otherworldly gadgets.

Teletubbies, the groundbreaking BBC children’s series that’s prompted both an outcry and a massive consumer craze since its debut last March debut in Britain, is about to arrive in the PBS schedule, April 6.

The series is based on the premise — already much-debated in Britain — that very young children are watching television but don’t understand it, so they might as well have a show that’s designed for them.

Anne WoodAnne Wood, series co-creator and head of Ragdoll Productions, developed the Teletubbies concept while testing children’s responses to her other series Tots TV and Rosie and Jim. “We became aware that there were still children, younger children, who could get a lot more from television, and we hadn’t quite reached far enough down to them,” Wood explained during last month’s TV critics’ press tour in Pasadena. Andrew Davenport, series co-creator, is a trained speech therapist. Wood is a former English teacher who made career leaps to publishing and later to television.

“We started with the idea that babies are growing up in a technological world, so we wanted to make a world that was safe and also in some way technological,” she says in promos that soon will begin airing on PBS. Teletubbyland, their creation, is “a cross between the land where television comes from and a nursery rhyme land.” She and Davenport observed very young children and designed the show to meet their physical, social and cognitive needs.

Although Teletubbies’ official target audience is children aged one to four, infants under one do watch the show, acknowledges Kenn Viselman, president of itsy bitsy Entertainment, which holds U.S. licensing rights.

Babies who are old enough to play peek-a-boo will get something out of it, as will those learning “around and around and up and down and in and out,” Viselman says. Teletubbies is filled with the concepts of early childhood development. “We play with the same ideas all over in different ways for children.”

Viselman makes no pretense that Teletubbies delivers explicit lessons that American audiences recognize in Sesame Street and other PBS programs. The show is “entirely about entertainment,” he says. “But when you’re dealing with a child this young, anything is a learning experience for them.”

The show inspires children to interact with the television screen in ways that are “very healthy,” according to Alice Cahn, PBS director of children’s programs. Young children watching Teletubbies are not “mesmerized” by television “washing over them.”

“They come to expect something to play with,” and will sing, dance, and recognize objects, Cahn adds. “All of these things replicate the kinds of activities parents do with young children.”

“I really felt this was a wonderful addition to the curriculum that public television already had in place, and it was one of the funniest shows I’d ever seen for young children,” she says.

“As I see it, there’s a very moderate curriculum,” comments Dan Anderson, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and an expert on children’s responses to television. “But they may be doing things that I don’t recognize.”

He’s viewed three BBC episodes of the series, and notes that their use of language and the concept of contingencies — when a character does something, something else will happen — are appropriate for the age group.

The “first and foremost” objective of Teletubbies, as Anderson describes it, is to “gain a large audience of very young children.” This, he says, is “brilliantly done.”

“If I was to lay down the design principles for a show for one-and-a-half to two-year-olds, I would say they’ve found all of them.”

Joys of television

Repetition is a hallmark of the show. “Again-again!,” the Teletubbies call out in their emergent language, and a nursery rhyme, or film clip from the real world, is repeated.

These films are a central element in each episode, and they’re introduced through a clever device that some adults find troubling — TV screens on the Teletubbies’ tummies.

In a preview episode, a towering whirlygig begins spinning, emitting sparkles that light up the antennas on the Tubbies’ heads. The little dumplings rush about excitedly, anticipating the ticklish thrill of having their tummies light up with pictures of real children. Finally, Dipsy — the green Teletubby with a dipstick-shaped antenna — is chosen to receive the signal, and he sticks out his tummy proudly. Tinky Winky, Laa-Laa and Po gather round to watch.

The film, “Emily and Jester,” is shot at child’s eye level, and shows a little girl caring for and riding her pony with her mother. A child narrator says simply: “This is Emily. She’s four,” and “Jester is a really good pony.” When the film ends, the Tubbies cry “Again-again!” And their wish is fulfilled. (Adults are often dismayed at this point, when they see the very slow film starting again.)

Periscope-shaped loudspeakers emerge from the grassy hills, clanking to a halt and humming with feedback, while the Tubbies watch and wait eagerly for the adult words they deliver from somewhere below. These words can be as simple as “Trot. Trot. Trot. Trot” — spoken in deadpan with altering emphasis on each repetition — which inspires the Tubbies to begin trotting, walking and hopping joyfully in place. A familiar nursery rhyme, also delivered with little expression, repeats again and again as Laa-Laa and Dipsy prance about, bump their tummies together, fall over and giggle.

Dipsy, Laa-Laa, Po and Tinky Winky

Why things are the way they are in Teletubbyland

Gleaned from interviews and news reports

Who are the Teletubbies? Debates over this very question are raging at British universities. The mischievous theory put forth on an unofficial Tubbies web site is that they are mutants rendered docile and weak-minded from the after-effects of a nuclear holocaust. But series creator Anne Wood says that they are “constructs” and “technological babies”; Viselman says they “know less than a child itself does.” Tinky Winky is the tallest Teletubby. His terrycloth hide is purplish-blue and he sports a triangle-shaped antenna. For his frequent cavorting with a clunky red handbag, he has been declared a gay icon. When the periscope says “Trot,” he gets it down perfectly. Dipsy, the green Teletubby with a straight antenna, is slightly shorter than Tinky Winky, and reportedly more laid back. His complexion is slightly darker than the other Tubbies. Laa-Laa is yellow and her antenna is a squiggle. She is very happy and likes to dance. In her great moment, she takes “a happy walk.” Po is red. Her antenna is a round job (apparently UHF). She is the smallest Tubby and speaks Cantonese. She rides a scooter.

Why does the sun baby watch over Teletubbyland? Babies like to see babies, and just about everyone warms up Baby Sun coos from the skyto a happy gurgling one. His intent expressions and reactions — cooing, shrieking gleefully and smiling — reassure viewers that all is well, or let them know that something is about to happen.

Why do the Teletubbies have TVs in their tummies? This is a device to join Teletubbyland to the real world — to allow children in the audience, and the Teletubbies, to see themselves in short, very simple films.

What are those weird periscope things? These “voice trumpets” tell young viewers to shift gears and listen instead of watch. Davenport’s research found that babies have trouble doing both at the same time. When a trumpet emerges from the ground, the Tubbies watch it, and children can expect to hear a voice. The adult voices speak clearly and rhythmically, providing examples of correct speech. The Tubbies’ baby talk imitates the early words of children acquiring language, and allows young viewers to identify with their alien cohorts, who are no smarter than they are.

The Teletubbies hug each other a lot, and speak in babytalk: “Hello!” is “eh-oh!”; “beautiful flower” comes out “bootiful flaaer.” They like to dance and play peek-a-boo. Tellytubbyland magically manifests both the real world and the fantastic. Bunnies graze on its grassy knolls; the whirlygig rotates again, setting off a parade of exotic animals marching through, two-by-two. The Teletubbies eat toast and custard; they live in a domed structure half-buried in a dale and are cared for by a pet vacuum cleaner named Noo-noo.

For tiny kids, this world is no more odd than the real world that they’re getting to know.

Adults, however, will undoubtedly find Teletubbies completely bizarre. The repetition is annoying, the simplicity puzzling. Today’s British parents grew up with their own whimsical programs — such as Bill and Ben the Flowerpotmen, who repeatedly uttered “flub-a-dub” — but many reacted angrily to Teletubbies. A national debate erupted over the educational value of the show. The Tubbies’ baby talk, adults feared, would stunt children’s language skills.

The controversy faded, and the undeniably adorable Teletubbies largely won over the British public. Demand for Tubby dolls far outweighed supply during the Christmas season — fights broke out in stores over the cuddly aliens — and retailers took to rationing the toys. A Teletubby single, “Say Eh-Oh,” topped the British pop charts for two weeks. Product sales reportedly topped $34 million, not counting the flood of unlicensed knock-offs. Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po have been dubbed the new “Fab Four.”

Two million Britons consistently tune into the show. Cahn reports that in late December, the Beeb drew a 43 share with Teletubbies — not that PBS cares about ratings, she adds. This is not just an audience of one-year-olds.

To tubby or not to tubby?

With the big promotional push PBS and itsy bitsy are about to launch — four-color spreads in four national magazines and billboards in New York and Los Angeles — the Teletubbies’ April 6 debut will be hard to miss. The campaign bills the series as “PBS for Beginners,” and aims to explain to parents how to participate in the show with their children.

Whether American adults will have the patience to do so — or will flee screaming, as they did when Barney became the big preschool craze — is anybody’s guess.

American audiences have higher educational expectations for preschool children’s programs, notes David Buckingham, a professor of education at the University of London. “In the U.S., the programming is very didactic and concerned with teaching, whereas in Britain, it centers on play and is child-centered.” He also points to a bigger “anti-television division” among academics in the U.S. “There’s a tendency to blame television for everything.”

Those who see TV as an explanation for society’s problems are unlikely to sit quietly while PBS targets an even younger audience.

“There is a substantial minority opinion that a program like Sesame Street is bad for kids,” comments Anderson. These people are “not going to think good things about a program for younger children without obvious educational objectives.”

One ready critic is Dorothy Singer of Yale University’s Family TV Research and Consultation Center, who worked on the original Ready to Learn proposal for CPB. “Gearing a show for very young children goes against everything I believe in,” she says. Children this age should be exploring their world, awakening all their senses. “You don’t get that from watching TV.”

Singer particularly objects to the video screens on the Tubbies’ tummies because it seems to endorse TV so strongly, and finds the use of baby talk inappropriate. “Children need to be exposed to good language.”

“What’s so sacrosanct about one-year-olds?” asks Cahn. “Whether we as a society like it or not, kids watch TV. We’re lucky if they watch public TV.”

“It’s not putting them in front of a TV that’s appalling, it’s leaving them in front of a TV that isn’t suited for them in the first place,” says Viselman.

“Television is a part of our children’s lives just as other technology are, and this is a program that’s at least acknowledging that and trying to help children come to understand that technology from their perspective,” says Ellen Wartella, dean of the college of communications at the University of Texas at Austin, who endorsed Teletubbies at the press tour.

But the rationale that babies already watch TV is slightly disingenuous. Research shows that children between one and two years of age don’t watch television in the same sustained way that older kids do, and when they do watch, they “fundamentally misunderstand” it, according to Anderson. “They might watch some Barney and bits and pieces of other things.”

“If Teletubbies becomes the leading edge, they are going to start watching television,” Anderson adds. “And that starts to raise questions that we don’t know the answers to.”

“We don’t know the impact of what watching TV at that age has on children,” he says. “We don’t know that time spent with TV is on the whole better than the time they might be spending other ways. With older children, it’s not an issue because they are watching anyways. We’re now starting to get children to watch when they wouldn’t have.”

EARLIER STORY

Teletubbies create controversy in U.K., Hasbro toy deal for U.S.

LATER STORY

 The Rev. Jerry Falwell questions Tinky-Winky as a role model, 1999.

RELATED LINKS

The program has inspired many unofficial web pages, including several amusing and largely affectionate ones: North American Teletubbies Appreciation Society, Moose Industries Teletubbies Site, and Teletubbies: A Recombo DNA Lab Investigation.

Download a cheerful, musical (though apparently unofficial) screensaver for your computer and other (less amusing) icons and graphics.

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