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The Trouble With Teletubbies: The Commercialization of PBS

By Susan Linn, EdD and Alvin F. Poussaint, MD
The American Prospect, May/June 1999

"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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