Blurring the Boundaries
"Teletubbies" and Children’s
Two and half
years after its first appearance on British screens, "Teletubbies"
continues to arouse an extraordinary level of interest and controversy.
It is a media phenomenon, not merely a programme - something that
is known to millions who have never seen it, and on which strong
opinions have become almost compulsory.
The notoriety of "Teletubbies" is not just
a reflection of its success in terms of ratings or overseas sales.
It is also, I shall argue, a symptom of the tensions that currently
surround children’s media culture.1 "Teletubbies" blurs
the boundaries between the public and the private; between education
and entertainment; and between child and adult audiences. This blurring
of boundaries is, I suggest, characteristic of contemporary media
- and particularly of media aimed at children. And yet, far from
being just another manifestation of ‘postmodernity’, the programme
also displays significant continuities with the past. In several
respects, "Teletubbies" represents something distinctively contemporary;
yet paradoxically, a good deal about it is also far from new.
The public and the private
"Teletubbies" is commissioned and broadcast
in Britain by the BBC - that is, by a non-commercial, public service
broadcasting company. The controversy it has aroused needs to be
understood in the light of contemporary changes at the BBC - and
indeed in terms of the broader move away from national public service
broadcasting towards a global, market-led, multi-channel environment.
The last decade has seen intensifying pressure
on the BBC. Margaret Thatcher, of course, was a powerful advocate
of privatisation; and while that did not eventually come to pass,
many critics have argued that the Corporation has effectively privatised
itself - not least through the ‘modernising’ policies of its notorious
Director General, John Birt. Even under a more sympathetic government,
the BBC is caught between the requirement to act as a national public
service broadcaster - and hence to justify the retention of the
licence fee through which it is funded - and the need to compete
in a global commercial market. This tension is reflected across
the whole range of its activities, from its screening of major sporting
events to its involvement in digital broadcasting and 24 hour news.
Children’s television is in a paradoxical
position here. On the one hand, some critics and lobby groups have
argued that children’s television is particularly at risk from what
they regard as the BBC’s abandonment of its public service traditions.
They point, for example, to the increasing quantity of US animation
programmes on British screens, and the decline in factual programming
- a phenomenon which they see as symptomatic of ‘dumbing down’.
Such claims are, it should be emphasised, highly questionable, both
in terms of their factual validity and in terms of their implicit
assumptions about cultural value.2
On the other hand, however, children have
become an increasingly valuable target market in this newly competitive
broadcasting environment. There are now no fewer than six specialist
children’s cable/satellite channels in the UK; and on terrestrial
television, children’s programmes have begun to spread to hitherto
untouched areas of the schedule, such as breakfast times and Sunday
mornings. Meanwhile, television is now ever more firmly caught up
in global networks of multi-media marketing. Major US-based producers
in the field such as Disney, Viacom and Murdoch’s News Corporation
are increasingly using integrated marketing strategies, in which
television, video, movies, computer games, records, toys and a whole
range of other merchandise are intimately connected. In this context,
some have argued that children are now much better served as an
audience - at least in terms of quantity, if not necessarily in
terms of diversity or quality; yet these developments have also
generated a growing alarm about the commercial ‘exploitation’ of
children. Yet either way, it is in this environment that the BBC
now seems compelled to compete.
These developments impact on a programme
like "Teletubbies" in several ways. Perhaps the most obvious of
these is in the need to generate ancillary revenue - although the
extent to which it can be described as ancillary is probably debatable.
This revenue comes in two main forms: through merchandising and
overseas sales. Both are the responsibility of BBC Worldwide, which
is a wholly owned commercial subsidiary of the BBC.
In fact, merchandising has always been a
significant aspect of children’s television, since its inception
in the 1950s. Nevertheless, it has dramatically increased in scale
in the past two decades, as children (like teenagers before them)
have effectively been ‘discovered’ as a target market. The market
of licensed goods based on TV and media characters is now worth
more than £ 2.5 billion per year in the UK alone. The emergence
of what were called ‘30-minute commercials’ - that is, cartoons
explicitly designed to promote toys, such as "My Little Pony", "Thundercats"
and "Transformers", which began in the US in the 1980s - has been
the most controversial aspect of this phenomenon. Yet merchandising
has become a key imperative in children’s television generally -
not least at the BBC. Popular shows like the Saturday morning magazine
programme "Live and Kicking" have become showcases for new media
products, as well as vehicles for selling the BBC’s own merchandise:
the "Live and Kicking" magazine, for example, is currently the market
leader among pre-teens.
Pre-school programmes have long been a key
area for merchandising. In the UK and internationally, programmes
like "Thomas the Tank Engine" (known in the US as "Shining Time
Station") and "Postman Pat" continue to generate an extensive range
of toys and other products. Pre-schoolers are also a major market
for sell-through video, and for ‘educational’ books and magazines
associated with television; and here again, "Teletubbies" is far
In the case of "Teletubbies", a major merchandising
operation was planned from the very beginning - even if the scale
of demand proved initially to be much greater than anticipated.
The list of "Teletubbies" products either licensed by the BBC or
marketed directly is ever-growing: it includes a magazine, books,
audio and video tapes, computer games, posters, toys, clothing,
watches, food and confectionery, mugs and crockery, stationery and
games - as well as more unexpected artefacts like computer mouse
mats. "Teletubbies" merchandise reportedly earned
£ 23 million for the BBC in 1998; although
comparatively little of this money was fed back into the production
of children’s programmes.
This phenomenon raises several questions.
To what extent does the potential for merchandising influence the
programme itself? Producers and broadcasting executives routinely
insist that it does not; but it is clear that these considerations
now enter the process at a much earlier stage than they used to
do. Thus, puppets or animated characters create greater opportunities
for merchandising than live actors, for example in the form of toys.
Teams of characters - four "Teletubbies" rather than one - generate
what in the business is termed ‘collectability’; and props that
are regularly associated with the characters can also be marketed
separately - as in the case of ‘Tubby custard’, recently licensed
to St. Ivel. More generally, the unified ‘look’ of a programme -
colours, design features, graphics - is crucial in defining a distinctive
presence in shop displays. Ultimately, such considerations are bound
to affect production decisions, although of course they may well
conveniently coincide with producers’ creative instincts.
Can this be seen simply as a way of ‘exploiting’
vulnerable children? Of course, BBC executives will firmly insist
that it is not. There is certainly an element of puritanism about
such charges: children’s hankering for consumer goods is often seen
as a problem - particularly if it is associated with ‘low’ cultural
forms such as television - in a way that adults’ similar desires
are not.3 Children, it seems to be implied, should somehow
be kept innocent of the contamination of commerce. Nevertheless,
the BBC does enjoy a privileged position here: since it does not
carry advertising, it is able to promote its goods to what is effectively
a captive audience. On the other hand, it also has a brand image
for ‘quality’ products that it must struggle to retain - although
whether or not it has overstepped the mark in this instance is certainly
The second major dimension of BBC Worldwide’s
operation is overseas sales. Here again, "Teletubbies" has been
an unprecedented success, particularly for a British production;
although it will be interesting to see whether it can rival the
long-term international marketability of a programme like "Sesame
Here again, there are questions about the
extent to which such considerations influence the form of the programme
itself. Clearly, some kinds of programmes are much more marketable
than others. It is generally much harder to sell programmes which
are culturally specific than ones which are not. Thus, in the case
of children’s programmes, it is more difficult to sell non-fiction
than fiction; and contemporary drama, particularly if it features
non-standard accents, is less marketable than ‘children’s heritage
culture’ of the "Chronicles of Narnia" variety. Animation and puppet
shows sell better because they can easily be dubbed into other languages,
and also tend to be less culturally specific than those featuring
real children. In many of these respects, "Teletubbies" would appear
to be much more internationally marketable than, for example, the
magazine format of a programme like its predecessor "Playdays".
From the perspective of the purchasing countries,
however, the dominance of a small number of multinational companies
in the global marketplace inevitably raises concerns about cultural
imperialism. Such criticisms apply as much to the BBC as they do,
for example, to Disney. Some overseas delegates at the 1998 World
Summit on Television for Children, held in London, were critical
of "Teletubbies" not only on the ‘educational’ grounds to be considered
below, but also on the grounds of what they perceived as its cultural
bias. On the other hand, as in the case of "Sesame Street", the
programme is designed to have the potential for local broadcasters
to insert documentary-style material that is specific to their national
In all these respects, therefore, one can
see "Teletubbies" as symptomatic of the ‘mixed economy’ that increasingly
characterises the media environment. It represents a complex
interweaving of commercial and public service imperatives, and
of national and global considerations, that has become part of the
conditions of existence of contemporary television. Where the boundaries
should be drawn here is becoming an increasingly complex and difficult
issue for broadcasters, policy-makers and critics alike.
Education and entertainment
The amount of press commentary that has surrounded
"Teletubbies" has sometimes threatened to rival that of the most
popular soap operas. Both in the tabloids and in the so-called ‘quality’
press, any mention of the series still seems to guarantee headline
news. Of course, some of these stories are energetically ‘spun’
by the BBC Press Office; although in fact much of the response to
the programme continues to be negative.
Some of this material is simply light relief.
Stories such as the Reverend Jerry Falwell’s condemnation of Tinky
Winky as a ‘role model’ for ‘degenerate gay lifestyles’ are reported
by the British press with considerable irony. However, there is
a more serious concern here too. Much of the debate has centred
on the question that, according to the tabloid Daily Mirror,
is ‘on every parent’s lips’: ‘The Teletubbies - are they harmless
fun or bad for our children?’ (23rd May 1997). While Mirror readers
were called upon to give their own views (‘calls cost no more than
10 p’), many newspapers have relied on academic ‘experts’ - mostly
psychologists - to pronounce on the value of the programme.
Even as I write, the Sunday Observer
(12th September 1999) is running a story about the BBC’s own research,
which apparently suggests that "Teletubbies" is ‘better for young
children’s education than the strict programme of formal learning
being proposed by Education Secretary David Blunkett’. And in recent
weeks, there have been reports about the German Academy of Paediatrics’
condemnation of the programme’s ‘long-term addictive qualities’;
and about British academics’ research into its role in encouraging
children to read and write.
As this implies, the recurrent concern here
is with "Teletubbies'" ‘educational’ merit. Thus, it has repeatedly
been argued that the programme’s use of ‘baby talk’ will undermine
children’s language development; that it is unnecessarily repetitive;
that it takes place in an ‘unreal’ world; that there is too much
play and ‘dancing around doing meaningless things’, and too little
instructional content, for example in teaching letters and numbers.
It is frequently alleged - quite inaccurately - that the programme
contains no ‘real’ language at all. And significantly, many critics
seem concerned that the programme does not feature sufficient numbers
To some degree, the reporting of these criticisms
can be seen as part of a time-honoured tradition of the press attacking
its rival medium. Nevertheless, these responses also reveal a good
deal about changing definitions of what counts as ‘education’ in
the era of ‘back to basics’. Indeed, it is significant that in July
1997 the incoming government’s schools minister Stephen Byers made
a high profile speech in which he singled out "Teletubbies" as an
example of the ‘dumbing down’ of British children - although (needless
to say, perhaps) he was then bound to admit that he had never actually
These criticisms thus reflect a more fundamental
anxiety about education - and particularly about the relationship
between education and children’s leisure time, of which television
viewing obviously forms a significant part. In recent years, the
key site of education has begun to shift. In Britain, as in many
other countries, parents are increasingly being urged to participate
in their children’s education: there is a growing sense, particularly
among middle-class parents, that state education is failing, and
that they now have to supplement its inadequacies from their own
resources. The renewed emphasis on homework and the massive boom
in home computers and workbooks reflect the increasing competitiveness
that has been created by national testing.
In some respects, of course, this is merely
the latest stage in a backlash against what are seen as dangerous
liberal-progressive ideas about education. The new government is
taking the lead in arguing for a return to traditional methods in
the name of ‘modernisation’. In this context, television in general
is largely defined as anti-educational. If it has a role, it is
not to ‘dumb down’, but to ‘brain up’. Television should not be
entertaining children: on the contrary, it should be part of the
work they are expected to be doing when they are not at school.
Insofar as it fails to provide rigorous drilling
in letter and number recognition, a programme like "Teletubbies"
is thus inevitably seen to be failing in its pedagogic duty. In
fact, the philosophy of the show’s creator, Anne Wood, is defiantly
child-centred. In interviews and press releases, she consistently
emphasises the idea that children’s programmes should ‘take the
child’s point of view’ - an argument that is most overtly reflected
in "Teletubbies"’ short documentary inserts, which feature children
playing or going about their everyday lives without the mediation
of adults. Young children, Wood argues, learn not through ‘instruction’
but through play; and they have a right to ‘fun’ and ‘entertainment’
just as much as adult viewers. As the Observer story quoted
above clearly indicates, "Teletubbies" espouses the child-centred
approach that is so at odds with current educational policy; and
the fact that it combines this with explicit references to television
itself - the Teletubbies even have televisions in their stomachs!
- surely compounds the offence.
In fact, I would argue that "Teletubbies"
needs to be understood in relation to two parallel traditions in
British pre-school programming. On the one hand, it has a great
deal in common with the child-centred, educative approach of the
BBC’s "Playdays" and the ITV series "Rainbow" - an approach characterised
by the use of ‘real life’ documentary inserts, the emphasis on learning
through play and the use of songs and rhymes. It is worth recalling
here the controversy that surrounded the BBC’s refusal to buy the
US series "Sesame Street" in the late 1960s. While there were several
issues at stake here (not least an implicit rejection of American
influences), the BBC refused to buy the series largely because of
its explicitly didactic approach: the ‘drilling’ of letters and
numbers in "Sesame Street" was seen to be fundamentally incompatible
with the BBC’s more ‘progressivist’, less instructional, approach.
To compare "Teletubbies" with, for example, Barney is to be reminded
that there is still a remarkable divergence in the dominant educational
philosophies on either side of the Atlantic.
At the same time, "Teletubbies" can also
be seen as the most recent inheritor of a parallel tradition of
entertainment programming for very young children. This tradition,
consisting largely of animation and puppet shows, can be traced
from "Bill and Ben" in the 1950s and "The Magic Roundabout" in the
1960s, through to the series of the 1970s and 1980s that are currently
being revived as ‘cult classics’ on cable and satellite channels
- shows such as "The Clangers", "Captain Pugwash", "Bagpuss" and
"The Wombles". Frequently surrealistic and bizarre, these programmes
spoke more directly to the imagination: they featured anthropomorphic
characters in fantasy worlds, and traded in nonsense, repetition
and absurd humour.
Ultimately, it may be its combination
of these two traditions - of ‘education’ and ‘entertainment’ - that
has made Teletubbies so troubling for many of its critics. While
it shares the broad pedagogic approach of the educative tradition,
it also departs from it in several ways - for example, by its neglect
of domestic ‘realism’ and of the secure mediation provided by adult
presenters. And yet, while it shares some of the surrealism and
fantasy of the entertainment tradition, Teletubbies is much more
explicitly educative in its approach.
Here, as in so many other areas of
children’s media culture, the relations between ‘education’ and
‘entertainment’ may be undergoing a fundamental change. Of course,
entertainment is always educational, in the sense that it is bound
to teach us something; and education has to be entertaining
in some way, at least if it is to succeed in engaging learners.
Perhaps this distinction can itself be seen as false, or at least
as an over-simplification - as generations of educators and media
producers have argued. And yet, in the current climate of change
both in education and in broadcasting, maintaining this distinction
appears to have become a fundamental imperative - at least for those
who are most resistant to change.
Child and adult audiences
As the preceding discussion implies, adults’
views about children’s television are frequently informed by nostalgia
for their own childhoods. Here again, the "Teletubbies" phenomenon
may reveal a good deal about the changing social meanings of childhood,
and the ways in which those meanings are constructed and defined.
All the evidence would suggest that "Teletubbies"
has been extraordinarily popular with its main target audience.
However, as Anne White’s article in this edition of TelevIZIon
suggests, it also acquired a substantial cult status among much
older viewers, at least in its early days. For example, the programme
was an unavoidable topic of conversation in the North London primary
school where I undertook some research a couple of years ago. Children
of six and seven were often keen to disavow any interest in the
programme, fiercely condemning it as ‘babyish’. Yet by the time
they reached the safety of nine or ten, they seemed to be able to
relate to it with a kind of subversive irony - although there was
still often a passionate rejection among those who had younger siblings.
As this implies, the children’s judgments about the programme were
closely tied up with their attempts to project themselves as more
or less ‘adult’.4
Likewise, colleagues who teach in secondary
schools reported that "Teletubbies" regalia often adorned their
students’ exercise books and bags, and that there were several scatological
or obscene versions of the theme song in circulation. The programme
also appeared to have a substantial audience among undergraduates.
In the months after it was first screened, several fan web sites
emerged, apparently produced by students; and many new sites have
appeared following the export of the programme to the US. Perhaps
the ultimate seal of youth cultural approval was granted in July
1997, when the leading style magazine The Face ran a five-page
story on ‘Teleclubbers’. Watching "Teletubbies", it asserted, was
now the coolest accompaniment to ‘post-club comedown’, as young
ravers unwind from the chemically-induced frenzy of the previous
As Anne White indicates, the BBC did its
best to discourage this ‘cult’ audience, for example by threatening
to prosecute unofficial web sites and by refusing to license the
characters for adult clothing. On one level, this was about defending
its pre-school audience; although it was also, of course, about
protecting its copyright. In fact, the cult status of "Teletubbies"
among older children and young adults is now well past its peak:
while not yet completely uncool, an enthusiasm for the programme
is now likely to be seen as distinctly passé.
Despite its temporary nature, the cult appeal
of "Teletubbies" among older viewers could be seen to reflect a
more general sense of irony which increasingly suffuses contemporary
popular culture. Thus, in Britain and the United States at least,
‘retro TV’ has become increasingly popular in the last decade. As
channels proliferate, and the need to recycle old material intensifies,
irony has become a valuable marketing device for schedulers. What
used to be disparaged as mere ‘repeats’ are now re-packaged with
knowing commentaries and ‘period’ graphics on channels like Nick
at Nite in the US and Channel Four in Britain. Meanwhile, programmes
like "Mystery Science Theatre 3000" effectively do the ‘work’ of
ironic viewing for you.
Inevitably, children’s television has become
part of this phenomenon. Some years ago, the BBC enjoyed considerable
success with re-runs of Gerry Anderson animation series from the
1960s; and "Thunderbirds" went on to enjoy a brief life as a West
End show in London (it is shortly to be released as a live action
feature film). There is now a considerable market in repackaged
tapes of children’s programmes from the fifties, sixties and seventies;
and we are beginning to see re-runs of the more bizarre animation
and puppet shows of the 1970s.
Several things are going on here. As I have
implied, it is partly a commercial strategy - a clever way of recycling
programmes for new audiences at minimal cost. Such recycling of
popular culture targets multiple audiences. Adults can now enjoy
"The Wombles" or "Captain Pugwash" with a mixture of nostalgia and
irony; while their children may be taking it ‘at face value’, first
time around. What’s more, they can watch these things together,
in a way that is unlikely to happen with "Mighty Morphin’ Power
Rangers" or some of the more impenetrable (for adults) contemporary
animation shows. This adult nostalgia may be regressive - a hankering
for a simpler time, in which men were men and women knew their place.
Yet there is also a sense of superiority to the past - and indeed
to our own past: a disbelief that we could ever have taken
such fake and hokey material seriously.
The instant irony with which "Teletubbies"
was first received reflects a similar ambivalence in our relationship
with childhood. On the one hand, "Teletubbies" embodies a kind of
innocence that adults will typically describe as ‘cute’ or ‘sweet’.
And yet there is also, perhaps, a kind of knowingness here. The
Teletubbies’ fantasies often have a mildly anarchic, absurdist quality
that is enhanced by the deadpan delivery of the adult narrator.
In terms of its mise-en-scene, the programme has a strongly
surreal or hyper-real quality, which The Face has not been
alone in describing as ‘psychedelic’ and ‘hallucinatory’. The most
obvious similarity is to "The Magic Roundabout", the 1960s children’s
programme beloved by hippies for its implicit references to drug
It could be argued that the intensity of
our reactions to these programmes reflects the depth and the ambivalence
of adult investments in childhood - both in our own childhoods,
and in the idea of childhood itself. From one perspective,
the success of "Teletubbies" with young people and adults could
be seen as a form of regression or infantilisation - or at least,
as further evidence of the blurring of boundaries between children
and adults. Yet it could also be interpreted as a necessary process
of recovering ‘childlike’ pleasures - in silly noises and games,
in anarchy and absurdity - for which irony provides a convenient
alibi. This is to imply that, like childhood, adulthood is also
a provisional state, which can be defined and constructed in different
ways for different purposes.
In this context, ‘childishness’ - like ‘youth’
before it - is becoming a kind of symbolic commodity, that is marketable
to consumers whose biological status places them well beyond the
obvious target audience. It is not simply children who are buying
the idea of childhood, but adults too; and they are doing so, not
merely on children’s behalf, but also for their own purposes.
Interpreting any children’s programme - and
perhaps particularly one aimed at a very young audience - is fraught
with difficulties. As adults, we are not the intended audience;
and as such, there is a significant risk of ‘misreading’, taking
things too literally, or simply lapsing into pretentiousness. It
is all too easy to dismiss such programmes as boring or simplistic,
or alternatively to find them cute or anarchic or surrealistic -
responses which could be seen as characteristic of how adults relate
to children generally. The danger here is that we end up simply
imposing adult categories, and thereby making unwarranted assumptions
about viewers. Spotting the intertextual references and symbolic
associations, or alternatively ‘hunting the stereotypes’, are easy
games to play; but they tell us very little about how children themselves
interpret and relate to what they watch.
Perhaps it is this inherent instability -
and the blurring of boundaries that it seems to entail - that has
made "Teletubbies" the ideal vehicle for adults’ concerns and fantasies.
Yet in the end, our responses to it may tell us much more about
ourselves than they do about its intended audience.
I would like to thank Peter Kelley and
Hannah Davies for their assistance. This work was undertaken as
part of an ESRC-funded project on "Children's Media Culture" (L126251026),
based at the Institute of Education, University of London.
1I discuss these issues at much greater length in my
forthcoming book 'After the Death of Childhood: Growing Up in
the Age of Electronic Media'. Cambridge: Polity, (in press).
2For a critical review of these debates, and of the
broader historical and economic context, see David Buckingham,
Hannah Davies, Ken Jones and Peter Kelley 'Children's Television
in Britain: History, Discourse and Policy'. London: British Film
3For a useful discussion of this issue, see Ellen Seiter
'Sold Separately: Parents and Children in Consumer Culture'. New
Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993.
4For further discussion, see Hannah Davies, David Buckingham
and Peter Kelley: 'In the worst possible taste? Children, television
and cultural value', European Journal of Cultural Studies, in
David Buckingham, Ph.D., is Reader in education,
Insitute of Education, University of London, UK.
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