Sue Howard and Susan Roberts
"Teletubbies" downunder: The
Broadcast at 7.30 a.m. on Australian television
and scheduled alongside other programmes intended for preschoolers,
it’s highly likely that only a small percentage of Australia’s population
has actually watched an episode of "Teletubbies" and most
of those viewers would be under the age of 5.It is clear, however,
that the evocative name ‘Teletubby’ has entered the Australian lexicon
and has currency and cultural meaning for Australians in general.
For example, Shane Warne, an Australian cricketing hero with a weight
problem was referred to as a ‘sporting Teletubby’ by a writer for
the national daily newspaper (Australian 19/12/97). Again
in The Australian, in an article presenting research into
childhood obesity, a subheader proclaimed ‘Overindulgent, overprotective
parents are turning their children into "Teletubbies"...’
(Australian 1/9/99) - an accompanying photograph depicts
an overweight primary school child, eating potato chips and drinking
soft drink, slumped on a sofa infront of a TV set.
As these examples show, the meanings that
the "Teletubby" epithet (with or without a capital T)
have generated are somewhat contradictory - they are part pejorative,
and part lovable. To put it crudely: champion leg-spin bowlers and
young children = good; fat and television = bad. What we would argue
is that these contradictory meanings (particularly for people who
have never watched the programme) are largely attributable to the
critical media attention that the series attracted even before it
went to air in Australia early in 1998. On the one hand, ardent
Teletubby-fandom among the young and the cuddly appeal of the Teletubby
characters has been frequently (and often anxiously) acknowledged,
while on the other, the series has been subjected to a barrage of
criticism (largely about language and lack of cognitive content).
In addition, written commentary has linked "Teletubbies"
to such controversial topics as drugs, homosexuality, rampant consumerism
and so forth. The language used in much of this writing relies on
militaristic metaphors where the child viewer is constructed as
the innocent victim powerless to deal with the rapacious and corrupting
force of "Teletubbies". All this amounts to a classic
case of ‘moral panic’ in our view.
What we wish to do in this paper is to examine
the controversy that has accompanied the screening of "Teletubbies"
in Australia by looking at a selection of the print media’s commentary
and criticism. We will tease out the main critical themes and show
how these can be related to deeper anxieties, as ‘moral panics’
tend to be. We will then describe a study of our own which is attempting
to uncover what it is about "Teletubbies" that young viewers
are responding to with such enthusiasm.
The media’s view
Although articles on "Teletubbies"
have appeared from time to time in Australian women’s magazines
and magazines on parenting, we restricted our survey of the print
media to newspapers published during the period December 1997 to
September 1999. For our target papers we chose the national daily
The Australian; the major daily in the state of New South
Wales, The Sydney Morning Herald; the major daily in South
Australia, The Advertiser and we collected a few pieces from
other minor publications. We ended up with 49 articles which, in
our view, amounts to a lot of column inches for a programme aimed
at the very young.
Our first strategy was a straightforward
content analysis to identify the main themes which writers were
addressing in their articles and we identified three major ones:
the first was what we called ‘Sex and Drugs’, the second concerned
‘Language Issues and Dumbing Down’ and the third related to the
‘Merchandising’ associated with "Teletubbies".
Sex and Drugs
From the time when "Teletubbies"
was first broadcast in Australia (February 16th 1998), the programme
attracted claims that it either contained alarming references to
drugs and homosexuality or was suspiciously appealing to drug-users
and gay men. The language of ‘cults’ and ‘addiction’ has also often
been used to describe the phenomenon of "Teletubbies"’
popularity. It is interesting to note that very few of the journalists
writing about the series appear to have actually viewed an episode.
Most of what they write is recycled, sensationalism lifted from
the British and other overseas press.
Even before the programme aired, Robin Oliver
in the Sydney Morning Herald (9/2/98) wrote a lengthy piece
warning of the imminent arrival of the "Teletubbies" series.
In the article he describes Tinky Winky sardonically as:
"... a largish dumpy chap in purple
suit, with a sticking up bit something like a sardine-tin key
on his head, a somewhat limp wave and, er, a handbag."
He then manages to put an unsavoury spin
on the way the "Teletubbies" express physical affection
for each other: ‘They roll around in a cocoon of happiness. They’ll
be group cuddling soon’. To leave the reader in no doubt as to the
underlying agenda of "Teletubbies" he adds:
"There are reports that [...] Tinky
Winky has become a cult hero among homosexuals [...] Andrew Medhurst
of Sussex University, gained some popular press by proclaiming
the handbag-wielding Tinky Winky as the world’s first preschool
gay icon." (Sydney Morning Herald 9/2/98)
On the day before "Teletubbies"
screened for the first time in Australia, Adelaide’s Sunday Mail
(15/2/98) perpetuates the ‘gay’ angle when it claimed that the
characters ‘...have a cult following among young British trendies,
particularly among gays who have adopted Tinky Winky...’.
A year later, a piece in The Advertiser
(14/1/99) revives the sexual innuendo about Tinky Winky: ‘Tinky
Winky has been suspect for his colour purple, his antenna triangular-shaped
like the gay-pride symbol, and his carrying a purse...’. However,
it was not until the Reverend Jerry Falwell ‘outed’ the character
in his U.S. National Liberty Journal that parents were directly
advised to guard their children against the corrupting influence
of Tinky Winky. The Advertiser (12/2/99) reports that
Falwell had taken his action:
"... after collating evidence of
what he claims is the character’s homosexual nature. Carrying
a handbag, being purple and having a triangular antenna are all
clear signs and children may be in moral danger...."
The Australian (10/2/99) also cites
the ‘tell-tale’ gay symbols and quotes Falwell as saying ‘These
subtle depictions are no doubt intentional and parents are warned
to be alert to these elements of the series.’ Although Falwell later
retracted his statements in a revisionist moment (Australian
20/2/99), another report claimed that the US-based Christian
Action Network had demanded that an HC tag (for Homosexual Content)
be shown before each "Teletubbies" programme
so that parents could be warned about inherent dangers in the
content (Advertiser 25/2/99).
Disappointingly, it was left to writers of
Letters to the Editor, not feature writers and journalists, to challenge
all this absurdity. One letter writer complains about ‘... the extraordinarily
prominent coverage (almost a full page) given to Jerry Falwell’s
illogical, bizarre remarks about the children’s programme, "Teletubbies".’
Another ironically writes: ‘Let’s look on the bright side of this
absurdity: if Tinky Winky is gay, Dipsy, Po and Laa Laa are teaching
our little children not to be homophobic by playing happily together’.
(Advertiser 16/2/99 & 17/2/99)
The linking of "Teletubbies" with
drugs follows a similar pattern to that adopted with the sexuality
issue. Comment and critique are rarely the product of first-hand
viewing but instead consist of reports of reports emanating from
elsewhere Even before the series was broadcast in Australia, for
example, The Australian (13/12/97) describes how "Teletubbies"
gained notoriety with some overseas critics because:
"... with its hallucinogenic visuals
and its blithe disregard for reality, the show was, they claimed
nothing less than a televisual homage to the transformative powers
of the drug ecstasy - an impression seemingly confirmed when,
in one infamous segment, the ‘Tubbies gathered round a giant letter
descending from the sky. A letter that turned out to be (coincidentally?)
a large, phosphorescent E." (Australian 13/12/97)
A week before the show went to air, The
Sydney Morning Herald (9/2/98) reported in two consecutive
short paragraphs that there were accounts of babies as young as
6 months being ‘addicted’ to "Teletubbies" and
that British drug addicts were also manically devoted to them. The
link between young children and drugs is cleverly not explicit,
but has, nevertheless, a powerful metonymic effect. The article
then goes on to report:
"According to the New York
Times, which delved into the youth culture of British hip magazines,
teenagers like to come home from "all-night, ecstasy-fuelled
raves", switch on "Teletubbies" and attempt to
unravel encoded drug messages..". (Sydney Morning Herald
One day before "Teletubbies"
went to air, Adelaide’s Sunday Mail was making even more
"Teletubbies have been both
attacked and adored for supposed symbolism that analysts say ranges
from fascism to ‘religious rituals’ to drug inspired behaviour
‘potentially more dangerous to the psyche than smoking crack’"
(Sunday Mail 15/2/98)
The language of addiction is apparent in
even quite innocuous pieces about the programme. Anne Wood, the
"Teletubbies" inventor and producer, is claimed
to have invented other creations (e.g. Roland the Rat, Rosie and
Jim) that have ‘... turned toddlers into television addicts...’
(Australian 7/7/98). The programme ‘glues [2 - 3 year
olds] to the screen’ (Australian 17/10/98) and one journalist
claims that her two year old nephew ‘was hooked’ on "Teletubbies"
‘within 24 hours of first exposure’ (Australian 10/1/98).
What is disappointing about the press reports
about these issues is that they tend to recycle previously reported
sensational accounts of how this or that group has been outraged
by perceived drug or homosexual references and symbols in "Teletubbies".
There is little attempt at first-hand analysis to support or challenge
these views. Ironically, the most clear-sighted assessments of "Teletubbies"
come from the writers of Letters to the Editor, who are most likely
to be the parents of Teletubby fans and therefore rather more familiar
with the source material than the journalists appear to be.
Language Issues and ‘Dumbing-Down’
As if sex and drugs weren’t enough, "Teletubbies"
has also been subjected to quite scathing criticism concerning
the characters’ use of language and a perceived lack of educational
content in the programme. The main focus for the attack is the fact
that the "Teletubby" characters talk to each other in
‘baby talk’ and this is considered to be an inappropriate model
of language for pre-verbal toddlers. This, despite the fact that
each programme generally provides different models of language use
and proficiency ranging from four year olds with Cockney accents
to the upper class articulation of Penelope Keith, the actor.
Again, many of the claims are reporting British
concerns rather than examining the programme itself. The following
excerpts from the Australian press are typical in the recycling
of British anxieties about children imitating "tubby talk"
instead of learning to speak properly:
"The colourful Teletubbies
live in Teletubbyland and use toddler talk - often leaving out
verbs and pronouns in their speech. They communicate with looks,
laughs and words which are not necessarily accurate. Parents and
educators in the UK have voiced their concerns over children copying
the ``tubby talk"', rather than using correct English."
"Teletubby language, what there is of
it, is clipped, ‘dumbed-down’ is the way many parents and educators
have described it. Instead of promoting proper words and leaving
small children to come to grips with them, Tubby-speak comes ready-slurred
and the process by which children, great imitators, have always
learned to talk is usurped. Baby talk rules: the scooter ridden
by Po, the baby of the group, becomes cooter, custard is tustard."
(Sydney Morning Herald 9/2/98)
The Advertiser (12/11/98) at least
claims evidence that Australian parents and educators share their
British counterparts’ concerns:
"Many Aussie parents also
are feeling irate about the program. The problem with the "Teletubbies"
is that they talk baby talk. So, linguistic flavor of the month
at kindy these days is ``uh-oh'' for ``hello'', ``coo-ta'' for
``scooter'' and ``cu-ded'' for ``custard''.... Adelaide childcare
workers have been expressing concern at the way in which little
ones are using Tubbytalk instead of conventional English."
Interestingly, one article that does indicate
that the writer has actually viewed the programme and drawn his/her
own conclusions rather than borrowing second-hand opinions, comes
from a review of children’s computer games in the weekly computer
"Teletubbies at first seems
to break the ‘no baby talk’ rules of proper teaching; the Teletubbies
say ‘Ehoh’ instead of ‘hello’ and ‘gain a gain’ instead of ‘again’.
This, however, is balanced by clearly spoken sentences explaining
what the Teletubby is doing. There's no doubt that two-year-olds
immediately relate to and enjoy the Tubbies and Baby Sun."
In addition to poor language models, "Teletubbies"’
‘dubious educational value’ is claimed to contribute to a general
‘dumbing down’ of television for young children (Sydney Morning
Herald 9/2/98). Patricia Edgar, the head of the Australian
Children’s Television Foundation, appears somewhat ambivalent about
the programme, largely because of what she perceives as its lack
of intellectual challenge:
"What children actually learn from
the "Teletubbies" is actually quite controversial. Children
[in the age group "Teletubbies" is targeting] are learning
faster than anybody ever learns for the rest of their life. The
colour is spectacular, the production values are excellent and
the subject matter is good but it’s not really extending them
in any way at all." (Advertiser 11/2/98)
Phillip Adams, a well-known Australian public
figure and media commentator, calls "Teletubbies" ‘execrable’
and lumps this programme in with others, such as "Bananas in
Pyjamas" and "The Wiggles" (both immensely popular
in Australia), as being intellectually the equivalent of ‘gooey
custard’. He says:
"Kids’ programmes should
help kids’ minds grow. Help feed their joy in life and their curiosity.
So let us, for heaven’s sake, stop treating the pre-kinder set
as brain-dead. I’m all for saying goo-goo to 6-month-old babies.
But once a kid gets to three or four they deserve more than the
televisual counterpart to gooey custard. There comes a time when
kids have to view solids as well as eat them." (Australian
In a general policy statement about television
and very young children, The American Academy of Pediatrics contributed
to this debate about the so-called ‘brain-deadening’ influence of
programming for the young. The Australian (6/8/99) began
its report with:
"Play School is out for children
under two. So is Sesame Street and even the mega-hit Teletubbies
- if the American Academy of Pediatrics has its way ...Far from
being an ‘electronic babysitter’, the academy says TV should be
banned for children under two, the crucial years for brain development."
There followed vague and unsubstantiated
claims charging that programmes watched by the under two’s impede
development during a ‘critical stage’ and encourage children to
become mindless, dull and fat.
While rejecting the American Association
of Pediatrics’ advice to ban television for the under two’s, the
Sydney Morning Herald (5/8/99) reported that the Royal Australasian
College of Physicians was advising general practitioners to quiz
parents about the amount and type of television watched by their
children because, according to the director of health policy:
"Television viewing could
affect the mental, social and physical health of young people
and this should be taken into account when doctors diagnosed illness,
particularly behaviour and personality disorders." (Sydney
Morning Herald 5/8/99)
In this article, the RACP makes the link
between watching television in early childhood and subsequent mental
and personality disorders on the basis of one indicator - amount
of television watched. A recent study (Cuppitt et al. 1998) released
by the Australian Broadcasting Authority found, among many other
things, that 30-month old children may be watching television
for up to 84 minutes a day and that four year olds may watch up
to 21/2 hours per day (Sydney Morning Herald 5/8/99).
A flurry of ‘shock-horror’ headlines appeared in relation to this
study: ‘The T.V. addicts who wear nappies’ (Advertiser
20/7/99); ‘Children spend more time watching T.V. than in class’
(Australian 20/7/99); ‘Toddlers watch too much T.V.’ (Sun-Herald
18/7/99); ‘TV taking over tots’ lives’ (Herald Sun 20/7/99)
and ‘Slaves to the Box’ (Daily Telegraph 20/7/99).
In all this press coverage, no mention is
made of the considerable volume of research that has convincingly
challenged the simplistic ‘child-as-victim-of television’ view that
is being promoted here. Nor does it cite recent research that shows
that even very young children do not sit mindlessly in front of
the television but in fact use TV in much the same way as they use
everything else in their environment, to think about and make sense
of the world (see Lealand 1998; Howard 1998). The old behaviourist
view that television ‘effects’ are inevitably one-way and corrupting
(see, for example, Winn 1985) is alive and well in these reports.
There are two other surprising things about
the press attention given to the ‘language and dumbing down issue’.
The first is that the critics show so little knowledge of television
history. Several popular television shows in the 1950s such as "Watch
With Mother" and "Bill and Ben" used characters who
spoke ‘baby talk’, the latter coining such memorable neologisms
as ‘Flobabdob’! Since the 50’s the alternative for Australian preschoolers
seems to have been the incorporation of mute characters into their
programmes with an adult host talking for them (e.g. Humphrey B.
Bear in "Here’s Humphrey"; Big Ted and Jemima in "Play
The second concern is that once again, there
appears to be a reluctance to either engage in first-hand critical
assessment of the show or to seek comment from experts in the field.
In the 49 press pieces we reviewed only one article reported expert
opinion about the structure of the programme and the models of language
use it incorporates: a study conducted by researchers at Sheffield
Hallam University concluded:
"Linguistic experts have
clearly been involved in the creation of these appealing characters,
which are so skilful in their use of repetition and rhyme [...]
The "Teletubbies" show spectacularly how popular culture
can be a valuable stimulus for work in language and literature
with children. [...] Children who would not normally be interested
in writing fall all over themselves with excitement when they
get the chance to write about these familiar characters."
(Sydney Morning Herald 25/8/99)
Other expert opinion is available. Lois Bloom,
for example, the distinguished U.S. linguist has this to say about
the potential value of "Teletubbies":
"Here are the features that I saw
as noteworthy.. One is repetition [...] the short segments are
shown, and then shown again, and sometimes yet again, which means
that the young 1- or 2 -year-old who didn’t catch it the first
time gets another shot at it. Second, there are certain concepts
built into the vignettes that echo research in normal language
acquisition by myself and others: in particular, the use of relational
words like ‘more’, ‘again’ and ‘uhoh’ and ‘gone’ - fairly basic
concept-word connections for 1-year-olds [...] and the pace is
slow, and easy, and colourful, and catchy, and incorporates expectation
as well as surprise. [...] Will the use of so-called ‘baby talk’
be hurtful? Maybe there will be research out there some day to
say that it is, but I seriously doubt it." (Bloom, 1999)
Given the bad publicity about the language
and the ‘dubious educational value’ of "Teletubbies",
anecdotal evidence about Australian parents, kindergartens and preschools
banning the "Teletubbies" programme, toys, books and videos
is understandable. A more informed approach to discussing the series
would have helped to minimise anxieties but, one has to admit, that
would probably have made the topic far less newsworthy.
Much of the reporting about the success of
"Teletubbies" merchandising is set in a business framework
and here the language used is redolent with militaristic metaphors:
"Teletubbies" ‘are marching to world domination’ (The
Sydney Morning Herald 9/2/98 ), ‘are taking the world by
storm’ (Advertiser 25/8/98) and ‘they’ve conquered Britain’
(The Sydney Morning Herald 9/2/98) where their debut ‘caused
mini-riots and rationing last Christmas’ (Advertiser 26/3/98).
The mayhem continues in New Zealand:
The "Teletubbies" are one
of the hottest selling toys in ABC Shops in Adelaide and now the
mania has struck New Zealand. Children yesterday were tipped from
strollers and elderly women were shoved about when about 100 people
stormed The Warehouse store in Hamilton, snapping up the first
shipment of the "Teletubbies" in less than a minute.
Police received several complaints from people who were trampled.
Much reporting in the business pages focuses
on the money that "Teletubbies" merchandise has earned
for the BBC - an amount estimated between $A 50 million (Australian
2/1/99) and $A 62.57 million (Herald Sun 18/7/98). There
is awe at the sheer volume of sales in Britain during the previous
Christmas where "Teletubby" dolls outsold Spice Girls
dolls (Advertiser 11/2/98) and a "Teletubby"
‘song’ (consisting largely of baby noises) was a hit in the pop
charts (Sydney Morning Herald 9/2/98). Another article reports
that 2 million "Teletubbies" videos were sold in less
than 12 months in the UK (Australian 12/3/98). There is clearly
a certain amount of eager anticipation that the products will be
equally successful in Australia: ‘Demand for "Teletubby"
dolls has far outstripped supply, a situation the Australian distributors
are quietly confident will be repeated here.’ (Advertiser
Moving away from the triumphalist reporting
in the business pages, a rather more ambivalent attitude towards
"Teletubbies" merchandising success is apparent. As Buckingham
(1993: 242) has pointed out, unlike the concerns generated by television
violence (i.e. fear that children will become anti-social), concerns
about television advertising centre on fear that children will become
too compliant, too willing to accept the dominant materialist, consumerist
ideology of capitalist society. There has always been a vocal lobby
group against children’s television advertisements and the marketing
technique of linking merchandise to popular TV shows (e.g. Varney
1994; Kunkel 1994; Wartella 1980, 1984). They argue that these practices
mislead children and are both exploitative and manipulative - a
view characterised by Young (1986) as ‘child-as-innocent and advertiser-as-seducer’.
Some of the reporting echoes these concerns. The image of the young
child being manipulated by predatory ‘Big Business’ is implicit
in the following extracts:
"The program attracts more
than 2 million British toddlers daily. In the marketing aisles
that lead to the ubiquitous ABC shops, the word has been put out
that the Teletubbies debut should not be allowed to become the
subject of unwelcome controversy in the media. The reasoning is
obvious. Consignments of Tubby products, books, videos, CDs plush
toys, costumes, brooches, jigsaw puzzles, T-shirts and possibly
food will start arriving in Australia before Easter, by which
time demand is expected to be Tubby-tenacious." (Sydney Morning
"While the media spotlight has largely
moved off the "Teletubbies" in Britain, sales have continued
to boom and the "Teletubbies" launch on the Public Service
Broadcasting channel in the U.S. [...] has been judged by hard-headed
business analysts as a cash-generating hit." (Australian
An article in The Australian (7/7/98)
headlined: Creator grows fat on Teletubby fan fare, reported
that "Teletubbies" products had been such a marketing
success that Anne Wood was going to be eligible to join Britain’s
Sunday Times’ ‘Rich List’ (i.e. she is worth at least 20
million pounds). While the tone of the article is generally admiring
(as the Australian press often is of those who contrive to get seriously
rich), there is clear ambivalence of feeling in the article. The
headline phrase ‘to grow fat on’ has pejorative and predatory overtones
and in the article itself the predatory image continues with the
success of "Teletubbies" toys overseas being described
variously as ‘a feeding frenzy’, ‘Tubbymania’ and a ‘march to world
There is a clear anxiety expressed here about
making a great deal of money from something that is very appealing
to the very young, however the arguments generally advanced to support
this position are not canvassed. All the reader is left with is
the impression that young children are at the mercy of the "Teletubbies"
business empire and that some individuals and organizations are
becoming incredibly wealthy, literally at the children’s (or their
What conclusion should one draw from this
brief examination of the way "Teletubbies" has been reported
in Australia? Children’s passion for the "Teletubby" characters
and series is everywhere acknowledged but rarely examined. At the
same time, innuendo links the series to homosexuality and drugs
and the alarm is raised that "tubby talk" will lead to
impaired language development in the young. In addition, the repetitious
and simple content of the programmes is accused of being insufficiently
challenging, leading to the "dumbing down" of Australian
children. To cap it all, "Teletubbies" is unmasked as
a marketing conspiracy to exploit young children.
How can one understand such a furore over
a television programme designed for the under two’s? In our view,
it is the fact that "Teletubbies" is designed for
the under two’s - and is the first programme to be so - that is
the reason so much anxiety has grown up around the series.
Throughout history, popular cultural forms
have been the lightning rod for anxieties about social dysfunction
and moral decline (see Pearson 1984; Barker 1984). Television, video,
computer games and the Internet are simply the latest in a long
line of ‘new media’ to attract blame for what social critics see
as deteriorating sexual mores, the lowering of educational standards
and a loosening of moral values in general.
At the same time, Western ideological constructions
have conceptualised childhood as a time of innocence and sanctity.
As Sefton-Green puts it:
"Modern industrial life has constructed
the special and privileged space of childhood not only as a walled
garden to keep out the concerns of the adult world but - to pursue
the horticultural metaphor - to nurture from seed the adult plant."
However, with increasing awareness of, for
example, the incidence of child abuse, violent crimes perpetrated
by children and drug use in younger and younger children this construction
has taken a battering. To follow Sefton-Green’s analogy, in the
popular imagination the walls of the garden have been breeched and
the seed’s ability to grow straight and strong has been compromised.
As a consequence, the period of sanctuary in childhood in the public
imagination has shrunk to the early childhood years and Freudian-type
myths that these years are the most crucial, not only for personality
but also for cognitive development, are rapidly reappearing.
"Teletubbies", of course, is placed
at the centre of these discourses. The fact that it is the first
television programme deliberately designed for the under 2’s allows
it to be viewed as a battering-ram, in the guise of a new media
form, attacking the last sanctuary of early childhood.
Like all new media forms, "Teletubbies"
can also be seen as a target for broader social anxieties. In this
way, the concerns about Tinky Winky’s sexuality and references to
drugs and drug use by the young can be explained. The criticisms
about "Teletubbies"’ educational content and "tubby
talk" can be explained in terms of perennial social anxiety
about declining literacy and/or educational standards. General uneasiness
about corporate morality in a deregulated market gives rise to ambivalence
about someone (a woman!) making a great deal of money from a good
idea. At the same time, the accusation that very young children
are being manipulated and exploited by ‘Big Business’ is a further
example of the sanctuary of childhood being invaded, this time by
"Teletubbies" is a product of our
de-regulated times - the old, tacit understandings that it is somehow
inappropriate to devise television programmes for the under two’s
and that we would certainly not try to tempt such young children
with attractive merchandise linked to the programmes have been challenged
and over-turned. In view of this, it’s clear why "Teletubbies"
has received such bad press, but what’s not clear is why the series
is such a phenomenal success. And that is what we decided to investigate.
Work in Progress
As researchers keenly interested in the broad
topic of children and television, we watched the initial "Teletubbies"
programmes with great interest. A good deal is known these days
about how preschoolers and older children respond to television
- what intrigued us was how very young and pre-verbal children responded
and so we decided to use "Teletubbies" as the stimulus
material for a study. We chose "Teletubbies" because it
was designed for the under two’s not because it was controversial.
We designed an observation study that would
enable us to record carefully the young participants’ responses
to a particular stimulus programme. This programme was chosen, in
consultation with a number of colleagues who are early childhood
experts, for a number of reasons - one of which was that in the
middle section where the video is shown, a jazz band played to a
group of primary school children who danced to the music. Thus,
we had an unusually advanced musical form (for very young children)
and physical activity presented at the same time.
Our method has been to show this video to
40 children under the age of two. While they watched the "Teletubbies"
video, we videod them watching. Sometimes this happened in their
homes, sometimes at a childcare centre; sometimes the children were
already declared "Teletubbies" fans, complete with collections
of merchandise, other participants watched television rarely and/or
were new to "Teletubbies" altogether.
To enable us to analyse the children’s responses,
our technical assistants helped us to devise a way of splicing the
"Teletubbies" video into a corner of the child-watching-"Teletubbies"
video. In this way, we are able to see how the children are responding
and precisely what images and sequences they are responding to (see
The work, as we’ve pointed out, is in progress
so we cannot discuss our analysis in detail at this point. However,
we can confidently say that, with the exception of the 14-month-old
who fell asleep five minutes into the video, most children were
riveted for considerable periods of time. Some were riveted and
physically very still, gazing with a fierce intensity at the screen.
Others were riveted and physically very active, dancing, patting
the screen, pointing and so on. Points of universal pleasure were
the Baby Sun and the appearance of the Teletubby characters themselves
(especially, the baby of the group, Po). The jazz band generally
left them cold but, interestingly, visual transformation puzzles
(e.g. the shape of the clouds changing to the beat of a drum) seemed
to deepen their absorption.
Detailed analysis of our results is about
to begin and so further than this we cannot go just now. Suffice
to say that we have lots of evidence that challenges two old bits
of ‘wisdom’. The first is that very young children cannot concentrate
on anything for very long and the second is that children’s brains
are out of gear when they are watching television. Rather than being
a threat to educational progress, it may well be that "Teletubbies"
presents the very young with accessible, intriguing and fun
stuff - just as Anne Wood said she designed it to do!
- Barker, M. (1984) (Ed) The
Video Nasties, London, Pluto
- Bloom, L. (1999) personal communication
- Buckingham, D. (1993) Children Talking Television: The Making
of Television Literacy, London, The Falmer Press
- Cuppitt, M., Jenkinson, D., Ungerer, J. and Waters, B. (1998)
Infants and Television, Sydney, Australian Broadcasting Authority
- Howard, S. (1998) ‘Unbalanced minds? Children thinking about television’,
in S. Howard (Ed) Wired-Up: Young People and the Electronic Media,
London, UCL Press
- Kunkel, D. (1994) ‘Advertising regulation and child development;
perspectives on social policy making’, in S. Frith and B. Biggins
(Eds) Children and Advertising: A Fair Game? Sydney, The
New College Institute for Values Research, New College, University
- Lealand, G. (1998) ‘Where do snails watch television? Preschool
television and New Zealand children’, in S. Howard (Ed) Wired-Up:
Young People and the Electronic Media, London, UCL Press
- Pearson, G. (1984) ‘Falling standards: a short, sharp history
of moral decline’, in M. Barker (Ed) The Video Nasties, London,
- Sefton-Green, J. (1999) (Ed) Digital Diversions: Youth Culture
in the Age of Multi-Media, London, UCL Press
- Varney, W. (1994) ‘The playful sell: marketing through toys’,
in S. Frith and B. Biggins (Eds) Children and Advertising: A
Fair Game? Sydney, The New College Institute for Values Research,
New College, University of NSW
- Wartella, E. (1980) ‘Individual differences in children’s responses
to television advertising,’ in E. Palmer and A. Dorr (Eds) Children
and the Faces of Television: Teaching, Violence, Selling, New
York, Academic Press
- Wartella, E. (1984) ‘Cognitive and affective factors of TV advertising’s
influence on children,’ Western Journal of Speech Communication,
48, pp 171 - 183
- Winn, M. (1985) The Plug In Drug: Television, Children and
the Family, New York, Penguin Books
- Young, B. (1986) Television Advertising and Children, Oxford,
| - The Advertiser (11/2/98) p.
- The Advertiser (15/2/98) p. 12
- The Advertiser (26/3/98) p. 33
- The Advertiser (30/7/98) p. 20
- The Advertiser (25/8/98) p. 44
- The Advertiser (12/11/98) p. 19
- The Advertiser (14/1/99) p. 20
- The Advertiser (12/2/99) p. 2
- The Advertiser (16/2/99) p. 17
- The Advertiser (17/2/99) p. 21
- The Advertiser (25/2/99) p. 20
- The Advertiser (20/7/99) p.5
- The Australian (13/12/97) p.11
- The Australian (19/12/97) p.22
- The Australian (10/1/98) p. 11
- The Australian (12/3/98) p. 12
|| - The Australian (7/7/98) p.
- The Australian (17/10/98) p.16
- The Australian (2/1/99) p. 14
- The Australian (10/2/99) p. 27
- The Australian (20/2/99) p. 11
- The Australian (20/7/99) p. 17
- The Australian (5/8/99) p.3
- The Australian (1/9/99) p. 11
- The Daily Telegraph (20/7/99) p.17
- The Herald Sun (18/7/98) p.15
- The Herald Sun (20/7/99) p.4
- The Sunday Mail 15/2/98) p.11
- The Sun-Herald (18/7/99) p.7
- The Sydney Morning Herald (9/2/98) p.4/5
- The Sydney Morning Herald (5/8/99) p.3
- The Sydney Morning Herald (25/8/99) p. 12
Sue Howard, PhD, is Senior Lecturer, Faculty
of Education, University of South Australia, Adelaide.
Susan Roberts, PhD, is Lecturer in Media Studies, Institute of
Early Childhood, Macquarie University, Sydney.
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