We often hear about the extraordinary powers of television: the power to amuse and inform the masses, the power to reshape politics, the power to bring together far-flung peoples. These are all significant, but there's another that's even more impressive--the power to keep a four-year-old quiet. All parents know about this miraculous effect, and many take advantage of it without even caring what program is on--Mannix reruns, Cochran and Company, golf--as long as the child sits staring dumbly at the fires of the TV hearth.
Still, no one wants to put the brain of his or her offspring at risk, even for the sake of a few minutes of peace, so it would be nice if there were shows that actually did small children some good. Under these circumstances, a parent might even regard TV as something positive rather than as a form of sedation. But are there such shows? And are any of them not Barney?
Parents can take heart: the amount of programming for preschoolers has exploded, and much of it is both entertaining and beneficial. The old standbys--Mister Rogers, Sesame Street and Barney--remain, but dozens of other shows are now on the air or are scheduled to appear in the coming months. On the Disney Channel, there is Bear in the Big Blue House, which features a 7-ft. bear and his puppet friends; the WB network is showing Channel Umptee-3, a cartoon that Norman Lear is helping produce; a new Captain Kangaroo is in syndication; Nickelodeon schedules five hours of preschool TV each weekday; and PBS has the Muppet-like Wimzie's House and, coming in the spring, Teletubbies. A huge hit in England, Teletubbies stars four beings who seem to be made out of terry cloth and who all have TV screens in their stomach. Well, it's the English--they also love marmite and Oasis.
Several forces have encouraged the creation of these shows for preschoolers. Cable continues to grow and demand more programming for every conceivable niche; new FCC regulations require broadcast stations to air three hours of educational and informational programming for children each week; recent research in early childhood development has stimulated interest in that stage of life; and, finally, producers have discovered that a preschool show can make a lot of money. "The success of some preschool shows in driving licensing and product sales is extraordinary," says Marjorie Kaplan, who oversees children's programming at the Discovery Networks. "When something like Barney comes along, it changes what the world can expect from preschool success. People tend to fish where the fish are." The creators of Barney caught a lot of fish: he has sold 44 million videos, 34 million books and countless Barney and Baby Bop plush toys.