Why Watch Teletubbies?
Dear Ms. Smartphone: I heard that the kid’s show Teletubbies is coming back. In my toddler’s playgroup we have divided opinions about it. Some of the Moms remember watching it with younger brothers and sisters and find it cute. Other Moms think the program is dumbed down and do not plan to let their kids watch it. A few of them remember a 2015 reboot. I didn’t see either program and have no opinion. Why not watch Teletubbies?! Taylor, San Francisco
Dear Taylor: I appreciate your questions since I spend a fair amount of time in my upcoming book slicing and dicing the story of Teletubbies. The cartoon program first aired on the BBC in 1997, and it was a groundbreaker in kid’s media. The Teletubbies are four fuzzy-suited cartoon-like characters with giant eyes and they sport unusual headpieces, antennae, and handbags. They romp in front of a psychedelic, some would say, LSD inspired graphic background.
They are called Teletubbies because each character has a screen built into their furry suit at navel level. Their “indoor” viewing screen was used irregularly, it was not a key element of the original program. In the BBC version, the Tubbies would occasionally use the screen to view other children all over the world. That seems, in retrospect, like shades of children confined indoors during the Covid pandemic and socializing with other children through their touchscreens.
So, why not watch Teletubbies? Like so much children’s media, the answer for your playgroup is going to be it depends. Teletubbies never aimed to be a virtuous program filled with educational material like its predecessor Sesame Street. It was not created to teach words or numbers. Speaking of numbers, I would find it preferable to watch say 2 episodes of Teletubbies and then read aloud to your child for another hour rather than watch three hours of Sesame Street (SS) back to back and never read aloud. It is important to not rely on Sesame Street or other media fare to do all the storytelling.
As your playgroup notes, Teletubbies reaches out to the youngest aged child and that is by design. There is a very limited plot. When words are spoken, they seem pre-verbal, plus a few giggles from Sun Baby. The program is mostly visual with strikingly bright colors and pop-art scenery. The challenge for parents is whether or not this content becomes mesmerizing. Does it draw children in the way that more virtuous programs do not?
I chose not to use the term “addictive” because parents of young children still control the clicker and can decide when and where to watch this program. There is a danger today which did not exist when it first aired, that Teletubbies will travel with kids outside the house, into their travel time in stroller or car, and beyond. That’s because it can be streamed to a portable tablet. Where children watch this program (and others) may be more significant than the particular content they view.
There are outcries from moms on Instagram and Facebook that a more modern children’s program that debuted in 2006 is “addictive.” Teletubbies is more fantastical than Cocomelon. In the latter, cartoon-like children sing nursery rhymes that seem to morph into real ear-worms. The program can be watched on touchscreens or phones so they also follow children outside the home.
Both of these programs, Cocomelon and Teletubbies, are so baby-centric that parents have a difficult time sitting still for the full 15 or 20 minutes episodes to co-watch with their child. Adults get bored out- of- their- head. They trust that the content is ‘safe’ and age-appropriate. It’s hard to watch a TV program with kids when the same mindless verse cycles over and over again, or nothing happens except colors turning from fluorescent pink to green. Yet if toddlers spend more time in this environment it plants the seed for teen and tween behavior, when kids demand to be left alone with personal devices in the confines of their bedroom.
On a final note, watch for where the new Teletubbies go- in the marketing world that is. With successful licensing, we could see a wave of Teletubby video games, Teletubby boxed drinks and snacks, and, undoubtedly, Teletubby phones and touchscreens embedded in our navels. As this unfolds we will be just like them- spending even more time craning our necks forward and casting our eyes downward.