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BabyTV and BabyFirstTV target the diaper set

 

Doreen Carvajal

International Herald Tribune

May 18, 2008

PARIS: For baby's first sitcom, the leading characters consist of a bobbing troupe of carrots and a wobbly gingerbread man in a green polka-dot shirt navigating through a shower of numbers.

"First impressions last your whole life," a cheerful female voice sings in the background. "The world keeps turning and you keep learning."

That vision has clearly taken hold of living rooms and nurseries around the world, where two television channels - BabyTV and BabyFirstTV - are rocking the cradle on different continents, reaching the United States, Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America.

But the channels and their programming is disturbing to some children's rights groups and pediatrics associations, who say they are concerned about claims that baby programming promotes child development, as well as with the risks of the increased possibility of using the television as a pacifier.

In the United States, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission accusing BabyFirstTV of falsely promoting educational benefits, an action it has pressed successfully against Walt Disney for claims made about its baby videos.

In France, where Baby TV and BabyFirstTV are beamed from Britain via satellite, there has been a backlash about the potential health risks of overexposure to television. Parents and medical organizations met with the French minister of health in April, and the CSA, the state broadcasting regulator, sent a letter last week raising the concerns with Ofcom, its British counterpart.

CanalSat, the leading pay-TV operator in France, carries BabyFirstTV 24 hours a day. It has a mix of more than 40 independently produced programs, from clips teaching sign language to the "Brainy Baby" series and "First Impressions," with animated characters and music designed to appeal to very young infants.

The programs, featuring characters like Tillie the Duck and Bonnie the Bear, typically last no longer than two minutes and shift from a faster pace during the day to a more soothing rhythm at night with Mr. Sandman.

But with a backlash over the channel, CanalSat is debating how to respond to critics who are wary of the rise of programming that - unlike pre-school television fare - targets infants as young as six months old.

"We're looking at reducing hours," said Maxim Saada, managing director of CanalSat, which is a part of the Canal Plus Group. "I honestly don't see the point, but we obviously want to show parents that they shouldn't do it at midnight for a two-year-old. If there were some studies showing that there are real problems for child development, then we would take some measures, but there are subscribers who are very happy with the channel."

BabyFirst, introduced on Mother's Day in 2006, followed the appearance of BabyTV, which was started in 2005. Two years later Fox International Channels bought a controlling stake in the network BabyTV, which is based in London, and it now appears in about 70 countries without commercials. It has also spawned a line of licensed merchandise in its name for books, games, puzzles and toys.

Since their beginnings, both channels have grown rapidly. BabyFirst signed a carriage deal with the Time Warner Cable Channel in the United States this month that costs $4.99 a month and reaches more than 90 million homes through the subscription-based network. With Fox International's distribution, BabyTV is also available in Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa.

BabyTV takes credit for inventing the genre in 2003, when the family of a co-founder, Maya Talit, dreamed up the idea and created a channel in Israel. While pregnant, she and her husband moved to London in 2004 to spread the idea, but the reception was cool, she said.

"Everywhere we went they would say to us that they already had pre-school channels," she said. "It was hard to explain BabyTV. It was a tough sell. I think now that we're better known it's become a must carry for basic packages on pay-TV."

When BabyFirstTV came along, BabyTV filed a suit in Los Angles accusing the newcomer of trademark infringement for using "confusingly similar" logos. Now the suit is something both companies are reluctant to discuss.

Sharon Rechter, the mother of a 15-month old daughter, said that her company turned to child development experts to help produce their shows, which range in length from two minutes to seven minutes. There are no commercials and distributors like CanalSat have been urging parents to watch the programs with their children.

"BabyFirst is an educational tool that parents can use to help them interact with their child," Rechter said. "Every two-minute segment that you see on BabyFirstTV is signed off by an expert, indicating that it's educational, there's nothing harmful and that it can help a child develop."

But those assurances have failed to sway groups like the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood in Massachusetts and a French counterpart, the CIEM, the an association to protect children in the media. Both groups remain skeptical of educational benefits and cite longstanding recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which advises no television viewing for children under the age of 2.

Last autumn the academy published a study that examined the impact of sustained television viewing by children between 2 and 5 years old. The study found that children at age 5 who watched more than two hours a day had problems with sleep, attention and aggressive behavior, but that early exposure did not cause social or behavioral problems if television viewing was reduced as the children grew older.

Christian Gautellier, an executive of the CIEM which met with the French Health Ministry, said his group decided to campaign against BabyFirst because of its insistence that its programs could aid in child development.

"We want to forbid the broadcasting of baby television," he said. "It's radical but we want to prevent channels from targeting children under 2."

Gautellier noted that child development experts support the principle of caution until more is known.

Saada, of CanalSat, said he was struck by the fact that many have not actually spent much time watching the shows.

"We're not talking about putting kids in front of the TV and leaving them there," he said. "We're talking about watching television for about 10 minutes on average. But this is not a debate about the channel. It's really a debate about television in general."
 

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