Birds chirp, music swells, and a beaming sun bearing the face of an equally beaming baby rises high in a blue sky. The TV blares in a voice meant to jerk infants out of their infant musings and get little feet running to the set:
“TEL-E-TUB-BIES! Time for ‘Teletubbies’! Time for ‘Teletubbies’!”
1998 is time for the U.S. and global debut of the Teletubbies, the bouncy, benign stars of a British-born TV show.
It means a new era of cradle-to-grave TV programming, starting with diapered viewers too small to change the channel or answer a call from the Nielsen people.
And yet, the infant watchers and their toddler brothers and sisters already are gurgling their approval.
In Britain, where the show has aired since spring, it’s a phenomenon: Teletubby toys were the biggest seller for Christmas and the Teletubby tune “Say eh-Oh!” topped the pop charts.
“I really think if they took it off the air now there’d be a revolution,” says Anne Wood, the proud British creator of the show.
In the United States, PBS will start airing the show in April, and Hasbro has bought the rights to “Teletubbies” games and toys.
Teletubbies Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po live and play in the green, rolling hills of Teletubby Land, where flowers bloom and bunnies graze, eating Tubby Toast and Tubby Custard, tended and tidied up after by a vacuum sweeper named Noo-noo.
Television, self-referentially enough, is the real star.
Each Teletubby head carries an antenna. When these pick up a signal, TV sets in the Teletubbies’ stomachs beam in video clips of real children in the real world - riding bikes, grooming ponies or finger-painting.
There are frequent breaks for technologically assisted magic: Loudspeakers rise from the ground to blare out nursery rhymes, wild beasts appear, a teddy bear drummer performs.
All the while, the smiling Sun Baby overhead - an infant face superimposed on a cartoon sun - provides both a laugh track and reassurance to fellow babies out there in Reality Land that everything they’re seeing is in fun - nobody’s getting hurt, scared or put to bed early.
Although the animation is impressive, the slow pace and mind-boggling repetition of every single rhyme and video is bound to turn off adult audiences. But Peggy Charren, a campaigner for better children’s TV, says it’s not as bad as it sounds.
“It’s a little simplistic, but so are little children,” says Charren.
She compares the look of the Teletubbies - full-size adults in costume - to Kewpie dolls covered with carpet.
“It’s kind of sugary - too much television has Tabasco all over it, and this is very sweet,” Charren says. “It’s kind.”
The simplicity is where the controversy lies. Critics in Britain and now America accuse “Teletubbies” of dumbing down children’s television to draw in the very littlest viewers - hooking them on TV before they have the language skills to muster even a feeble protest.
“I think babies don’t have to watch television,” Charren says. “There’s something creepy about propping an infant up in front of the television, no matter what’s on.”
Wood is utterly unapologetic.
One-year-olds already are watching TV, she says, so why not air a show that reassures and intrigues children about technology, the outside world and their own abilities.
Wood calls it a kind of “Sesame Street” primer, helping kids with simple things like concentrating on spoken information before they go on to master their ABC’s and 1,2,3s.
Alice Cahn, PBS’s director of children’s programming, says parents needn’t apologize for plunking their children down in front of “Teletubbies”; it’s what else the kids watch that should worry them.
With other shows, the TV might be on “as a kind of wallpaper - it’s washing over them, it’s not been designed for them,” Cahn said.
With “Teletubbies,” “This is a single half-hour, on five days a week, that parents can use as they wish.”