Friday, May 11, 2018

Flashback 1998: TV's latest 'British invasion' is putting children in a trance

     My older son Ross graduates from college in a couple days. I haven't seen him in ... more than five months, as he used the past two school breaks to study in London and travel in Israel. There was a time when I worried about not seeing him for five minutes, as this column, almost exactly 20 years old, is a reminder. 

     The Teletubbies show began in England in 1997 and came here the next year. There doesn't seem much to be thankful for in our media world, but we can thank providence that the Teletubbies came and went—production ended in 2001— without leaving much of a lasting impact, though they did have their uses. As it is, having not seen a show in nearly 20 years, sometimes when I notice a couple rabbits on a green lawn I'll flinch, remembering.

     "Bye-bye Ross. Bye. Daddy's going to work now. Bye. See ya."
     Nothing. My 2-year-old son's head doesn't turn. His face doesn't deviate a degree from staring directly at the object of his affection: "Teletubbies."
     I walk over to his chair, lean down low, and whisper in his ear: "Bye-bye. See you. Have a good day!" Nothing. Eyelock. He doesn't even blink. The Teletubbies dance and sing.
     And here's the horrible part. I glance up from the slack, inert face of my mesmerized son to see what he is watching. Then I start watching the Teletubbies. Tinky Winky. Dipsy. Po. La-La. They bump their pear-shaped bodies together. They tumble. A baby face smiles down from the yellow sun. Periscope-like speakers rise up from the lawn and make ringing, Orwellian pronouncements.
     That was the week before last. Day One, their debut in Chicago, on Channel 11, Baby-sitter to the World. I linger for a minute or two, compelled by the bright colors, the endless repetition. It is all . . . so . . . weird. I almost sit down, my mouth hanging open, and take in the entire show.
     Instead, grabbing myself by the nose, I manage to jerk my head away. My gaze torn from the set. I flee the house, stumbling toward work, another concerned parent confronting the Teletubby menace, the most ominous development out of England since bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
     Yes, children aren't supposed to watch TV. Never watch TV. Never eat sugar. Never a minute unobserved. Instead they should spend their days capering creatively with their devoted caretakers: a full-time mother, two white-haired grandmothers, a few doting aunts, and a groom to look after the pony.
     But whose life is like that? I feel lucky that my wife is a stay-at-home mother. If occasionally (OK, habitually) Ross ends up parked in front of Channel 11 for an hour or three during the mad morning rush to care for him and his younger brother, to get me out of the house and do 1,000 other things, well, it's better than leaving the boys to scrabble for themselves in some Lord of the Flies day care center or subject them to the questionable mercies of an unemployed teenager plucked off the street.
     A little "Theodore the Tugboat," a little "Arthur" and the day is well under way. Why shouldn't Teletubbies join our pharmacopeia of TV Tot Narcotics?
     Yes, I find their blinking eyes and gaping mouths off-putting. But the show isn't designed for me, is it? If it were, there would be dancing girls. (Now there's an idea: a show for kids where the alphabet, counting and colors are taught by a cast of scantily clad models from Victoria's Secret and Chippendales. Something for everybody.)
     Like anything new, the Teletubbies offer the agonizing question of whether this is an unacceptable invasion that must be resisted, or just something new that we will eventually come to love.
     Perhaps I'm influenced by all the commotion that preceded Teletubbies. It was the biggest deal in Britain since Diana went for a drive in Paris. There were controversies -- one actor was fired for not being sufficiently Teletubby-like. There was the issue of whether the Teletubby with the purse is gay. (It was an echo of when a minister here demanded to know just what the heck is going on between Bert and Ernie on "Sesame Street." Stupidity knows no borders.)
     Day Two. Ross actually complains when "Barney" comes on— "Teletubbies! Teletubbies!" he says, demanding that I conjure them up "Right now!" I actually feel a sympathetic pang for the now-scorned purple dinosaur, whom I certainly hated as much as anybody when he first debuted.
     But enough viewings can adjust you to anything. I suppose I'm sympathizing with my captors, the TV version of the "Stockholm Syndrome." Having seen every single "Barney," by now I can actually sit through a show without having to entertain myself by imagining I am part of the gang of "Clockwork Orange" thugs who corner Michael in a gritty high school breezeway on his way home from the Barney set.
     Day Three. My worries that the Teletubbies are Video Heroin are replaced by a sort of Bad Parent Epiphany. With my wife having bolted for the supermarket—supposedly—an hour before, and the time of my departure for work drawing near, I prop Ross before the shrine of the Teletubbies, set a bowl of oatmeal in his lap, and tiptoe off to take a shower.
     I would never have done this before, but my confidence in the hypnotic power of the Teletubbies is that great. I trust them with his life.
     As quick as the shower is, I have plenty of time to imagine my beloved boy snapping out of his trance the moment the bathroom door shuts. I see him hopping to his feet and racing directly to the nearby, tragically available a) lye; b) sharp kitchen knives; c) dry-cleaning bag; d) open window.
     I return to find him in the same position I had left him. His hand is on the tablespoon, but he hasn't raised it to his lips. A Teletrance. I look at the set. Hmmm, what a pleasant little band of happy fellows!
     It is too late for me and my family. But you, who haven't yet seen the show, can still save yourselves. The Teletubbies are coming! They're here! On the air now! The toys will soon be in stores! Do something before it's too . . .
              —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 19, 1998


  1. What's with the photo of the Eastern Columbia Building in LA at the top today? Very interesting building, but nothing to do with today's column.

  2. Certitude is not certainty, Clark St. I would suggest you re-think the connection, perhaps re-visiting the opening line of the introduction if a possible connection does not present itself. A word to the wise is sufficient.

  3. I thank the Lord that I had my kids early enough that we escaped both Barney and the Teletubbies.

  4. For the unwise or those worried they may be experiencing cognitive impairment, Ross is graduating from a college in the Los Angeles area.

  5. Oh. Then photo is not in homage to another kids' show, Blue's Clues?


  6. (Now there's an idea: a show for kids where the alphabet, counting and colors are taught by a cast of scantily clad models from Victoria's Secret and Chippendales. Something for everybody.)

    Doesn't Brazil have children's programs like that?

    And like Clark St., I'm not getting the connection with the picture either. Unless your son is about to graduate from Columbia. Or some school with "Eastern" in the name. But I thought he went to Pomona. Or is that your other boy?

  7. I find it amusing that the photo is generating more comments than the column, so here's my comment: Great column, Neil! Your writing holds up well. It's easy to see why you're enjoying a long career. To quote Neil Young "Long may you run". (actually, that's a song about a car, but, hey, it's a good song and it's written by another great writer named Neil.)

  8. I remember that Teletrance happening to my kids as soon as they heard the baby in the sun giggle. Instant transformation, it really was quite amazing. No harm seems to have occurred, both are well-adjusted, intelligent kids. The show was just rather quiet and charming.

  9. I found Teletubbies only mildly disturbing, but I never had to watch it for hours on end.



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