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THEY GET KNOCKED DOWN, THEY GET UP AGAIN. BUT NOT FOR LONG. LET THE TELETUBBIES BASHING BEGIN.
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BY JOYCE MILLMAN | You may not have heard of "Teletubbies" yet. Savor this blessed ignorance. On April 6, the mega-hit British children's TV show premieres on PBS stations in the United States and, soon, you will not be able to hide from the loathsome rat-baby visages of the four Tubbies: Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po.
Am I being cruel? Watch the show. "Teletubbies," which has been airing on the BBC for a year, is simultaneously vacuous and surreal. It's the first show specifically aimed at children as young as 1 year old, and it does so with an inane mix of goo-goo talk and hallucinatory imagery. The British media hates the show. Parents hate the show. Child development experts hate the show (Dorothy Singer of the Yale University Family TV Research and Consultation Center has come out against "Teletubbies" because the target audience is too young). PBS president Ervin Duggan hates the show, telling a national educational television conference last year, "I used to think 'Barney' would make me throw something at the television set. Wait till you see 'Teletubbies.'"
So why is PBS airing "Teletubbies"? Because it draws a regular viewership of 2 million in England. Because an estimated $80 million worth of Tubbies merchandise was sold worldwide last year (the show is also seen in, among other countries, Australia, South Africa, Israel, the Netherlands and Singapore). It's a creepy show, educationally suspect, yet here it is, helping PBS reach that last untapped kids' market. What's next -- programming for fetuses?
Actually, the Teletubbies do look an awful lot like fetuses, with their huge eyes, oversized upper lips and hairless, smooshy faces. They also look sort of like an infantilized version of the gray space alien. From an American perspective, the Teletubbies are a disturbing collision of two of the most pervasive cultural obsessions of our time, abortion and UFO's.
The Tubbies, played by four actors encased Barneylike in color-coded, big-bottomed felt suits, cavort in a green rolling meadow strewn with flowers and live bunnies -- it's like a trippy cross between a Sid and Marty Krofft puppetland and an Oasis video. The Tubbies live inside a breast-shaped grass mound, supervised only by a vacuum cleaner named Noo-Noo. Disembodied adult voices are heard through "voice trumpets," periscope-type thingies that pop up out of the ground to signal when it's time for exercise, naps or meals. In a sunny-side-up version of heinous parental neglect, the Tubbies eat machinery-dispensed food (Tubby Custard and Tubby Toast) and exhibit the stunted verbal development ("eh-oh" instead of "hello") you've read about in cases where a child is, say, locked in a closet for 10 years. The Tubbies' main activities are playing peek-a-boo, hugging, falling down and watching TV through the video screens embedded in their stomachs. Yes. They have TV's for tummies.
The Tubbies apparently receive incoming broadcasts from a mysterious spinning windmill; the transmission makes the antennae on top of their heads glow and then one of the Tubbies' tummy-screens will start playing a video clip of a very young human child doing something like riding a tricycle or taking care of a pet pony. After it's over the Tubbies cry, "Again, again!" and the tedious little film is replayed in its entirety, because babies like repetition, and if you parents have a problem with that, scold the ads PBS has taken out in magazines and newspapers to introduce the show, you need to slow down and "connect with your child on a whole different level. Theirs."
Of course, parents filled the need for repetition quite adequately in the prehistoric era before "Teletubbies." We read "Goodnight Moon," twice a night, 365 nights a year, and played pat-a-cake until our brains nearly imploded from boredom, and we liked it, by gum! Oh sure, Anne Wood, the British creator of "Teletubbies," may babble earnestly to the press about her great social mission of creating programming for babies who "are growing up in a technological world," but the pragmatic comments of Kenn Viselman, whose itsy bitsy Entertainment Company holds the lucrative U.S. merchandising rights to "Teletubbies," are a lot more believable. If parents are using TV as a baby sitter, he told the public broadcasting magazine Current, "they might as well have a good product." And speaking to Advertising Age, Viselman (whose bio touts him as the "genius behind the sales and marketing of 'Thomas the Tank Engine'") said that having "Teletubbies" running on PBS "is like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval."
Exactly. And that's why it's depressing to see PBS messing with the parental trust earned through years of conscientious programming like "Mister Rogers" and "Sesame Street." PBS's advertising for the show seems designed to assuage parental guilt over using "Teletubbies" as a baby sitter; the PBS Web site promises that the show will "nourish children's thinking skills, teach them to listen, help build their curiosity, expand their imagination and increase their confidence." But absent from that list is the lesson most important to Wood (whose company, Ragdoll Productions, has created scores of kids' shows), and to Viselman, and to the BBC and PBS: "Teletubbies" teaches toddlers how to be good little TV-watching soldiers.
"Teletubbies" is indoctrination so naked and pure it's almost farcical. On the show, a human baby's face inside a sunburst in the sky functions as a visual cue, telling little viewers how they should respond to what they're seeing. And the tummy-TVs blatantly internalize TV watching, making it a part of the Tubbies' selves, a part of their doughy couch potato bodies. "Teletubbies" links TV to all the good things baby loves -- custard and breasts and full tummies. How unfortunate (snicker, snicker) for PBS that it's launching "Teletubbies" only a couple of weeks after a widely publicized Harvard School of Public Health study documenting a correlation between childhood obesity and excessive TV watching.
But while "Teletubbies" may be bad for babies, the show's not-quite-hidden agenda and dazed and confused weirdness has inspired some mischievous Tubby deconstruction among grown-up viewers. A show like Comedy Central's scatological cartoon phenomenon "South Park," for instance, is its own graffiti (you can't possibly trash it better than the show trashes itself), but the bland, jolly fascism of "Teletubbies" practically invites you to take your best subtextual pot shot. So, to the BBC's dismay, gay groups in Britain hailed Tinky Winky (the purple one with the coat hanger coming out of his head) as the first queer hero of children's TV because he often carries around a big red purse. And on the Web, there are dozens of Tubby parodies, all of them more clever than the show.
The amusing Teletubbies Conspiracy Site places the Tubbies in an Orwellian scenario where they "spend most of their lives in abject fear, nervously awaiting the moment when the omnipresent windmill with its mind controlling red rays" will single one out to be "subjected to an ordeal of telly torture as an example to the others." The British humor webzine Palindrome offers a droll, Monty Pythonesque entry called Teletubbies: The True Story, which purports to be a natural history journal containing observations about the mysterious species "Tubbis tele" ("The actual act of Teletubby procreation has never been observed, although several mating rituals have been recorded. A common one involves two Teletubbies running towards each other, then colliding in mid-air ...").
The anti-Tubby jokes are so funny because they're grounded in truth -- "Teletubbies" is indoctrination, it is mind-control, it is a transparent attempt to institute brand-recognition and consumer craving in the youngest, most innocent viewers. "To be free to learn, children must be free to dream," gushes the manifesto for Viselman's itsy bitsy Entertainment Company.
Free to dream -- as long as they dream of Tubbies.
SALON | April 3, 1998