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YOUNG AND IN LOVE

Tuning in to the Teletubbies' Nursery Rhymes & Other Fun Songs

Being a childless, college-educated woman in my thirties, I'm not a regular Teletubbies viewer (my tastes run toward more mature fare, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Still, along with most everyone else on this planet, I can't ignore the hype surrounding England's newest Fab Four, Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po. Like all pop-culture phenoms, Teletubbies is controversial, and not just among Falwell followers. Its producers promote the show as educational, claiming that it enhances speech development in young children. According to co-creator Anne Wood, who's quoted liberally throughout the official Teletubbies Web site (www.bbc.co.uk/education/teletubbies), "Children will find the Teletubbies' attempts to speak funny, and so they will feel confident in joining in. Like children coming into the world, the Teletubbies know nothing. The children watching know this: They see them as beings who know less than they do." (Excellent point: I watched many seasons of Melrose Place for similar reasons.) Critics, on the other hand, consider the program disturbing to dangerous. They hate the gooey baby talk. They're creeped out by the cackling baby-face sun. They find the TV screens implanted in the Tubbies' stomachs discomfiting. The conspiracy-minded even argue that the show is exploitative, that it programs children to be passive consumers, if not homosexuals or communists.

It all comes down to the babies, though, and the babies just love it. The show and everything it's spawned so far — the videos, the toys, the clothing — have been wildly popular. The latest item in the marketing armamentarium is the CD Nursery Rhymes & Other Fun Songs (Mammoth), which contains music and narration from and inspired by the chart-topping video Teletubbies: Nursery Rhymes. Because the success of the program and related products seems to rest primarily on their visual appeal — the lustrous primary colors, the comically lumpish stars, the footage of real children broadcast from the Tubbies' TV-screen bellies — I was skeptical when I heard about the CD. Would the pleasures of an essentially visual medium carry over to an aural one? Curious, I set out to conduct an experiment, in which I played the CD for local babies and observed their reactions.

The youngest baby studied was 6-month-old Ethan Sinclair Farrar. He likes ceiling fans, elbows, dogs and cats, foot massages and Puerto Rican folk music. He dislikes sleep and cow's-milk formula. A regular Teletubbies viewer, he loves the baby-sun and the four main characters but is bored by the footage of real children. According to mom Monica, Ethan becomes especially attentive when watching the show and often "hollers and talks back to the Teletubbies." Monica admits that she finds some aspects of the program a little spooky, but she likes the way it stimulates Ethan. "He's happy, and he's interacting, so I don't think it can be that bad. But it does kind of creep me out that I'm schooling him as a TV viewer." On first hearing the CD, Ethan appeared confused and expectant, perhaps hoping that Dipsy et al would materialize suddenly on his front porch. When this didn't happen, he resigned himself to playing with his toys and scooting around on his blanket. Occasionally, when one of the Teletubbies giggled or cooed or said something (such as their trademark "Eh-oh"), Ethan chortled. Overall, though, he didn't seem transfixed by the CD. "He's listening," Monica offers. "His eyes get bigger when he's listening." Baby's verdict: Not exactly riveting, but pleasant enough as background music. Added bonus: the CD cover, on which Ethan bestowed a passionate kiss.

Adam Prescott Bautz, 9 months, likes illustrations, cats and dogs, his Laa-Laa doll, Hawaiian slack-key guitar music and baths. He dislikes shoes, confinement in baby strollers and any intimation that he might consider crawling instead of cruising, his preferred mode of ambulation. Adam watches Teletubbies occasionally at his grandmother's house — his father, Sebastian, doesn't approve of the show. When Adam was shown the CD cover, he immediately pointed to Laa-Laa and kissed the plastic jewel-box twice, prompting mother Amy to comment, "When he saw the Laa-Laa toy at the store, he loved it right away. He'd never seen the show before, but he saw the doll and just went nuts." Amy continues, "Now he recognizes Laa-Laa, since he has the toy, but I wouldn't say he really watches the show." What is it about the Teletubby mien that babies love so much? "They look sort of like a cross between a human fetus and a bear," Amy replies enigmatically. Adam's reaction to the CD was difficult to ascertain, but he did seem to be in a good mood while it was playing. "He likes all the laughing," Amy observed. "I'd say he gives it a thumbs-up."

Jackson Oliver Poag, 20 months, likes running outside, turning light switches on and off, examining machinery, eating apples and taking naps. He dislikes being led or confined in his high chair. A semiregular viewer of Teletubbies, he has a special fondness for the Tubby-custard machine. According to mom Gretchen, "he'll point and laugh at things. He gets all the subtle humor!" To demonstrate, Gretchen popped a tape of the show into the VCR, and Jack gazed at the television screen: True to his mother's prediction, he pointed and laughed, particularly when the Tubby-custard machine, source of all food in Teletubbyland (the Teletubbies seem to subsist entirely on Tubby custard and Tubby toast — love the alliteration!), emitted weird farting noises.

In the episode we watched, a cloud gets stuck in the Tubbytronic Superdome. (The Superdome is the communal compound where the pudgy aliens reside — seemingly without any parental influence, unless you count the custard machine and the vacuum cleaner, Noo Noo, which does all the housework.) Noo Noo sucks the cloud up and experiences subsequent indigestion, while the Teletubbies eat custard. Then they all go outside, and the magic windmill distributes gold sparkle-dust. The beatific baby-sun appears in the sky, and the Teletubbies' stomachs receive a special transmission. That such a story line manages to suck not only infants but Ecstasy-fueled club kids into its treacly vortex comes as no surprise: Teletubbyland is velvety and immaculate, an incandescent chartreuse. Everything is suffused with a surreal and hallucinatory brightness. Moreover, as father Andrew Poag observed, there's something very strange about the way magical stuff always seems to happen right after the Teletubbies eat. "You've got to wonder what's in that Tubby custard," he muses.

When the episode ended, we played the CD for Jack. He looked confused and then ran to the speaker, where he stood bewildered for a moment before hugging it hopefully. "Smart child, to embrace technology," Andrew joked. After determining that the Teletubbies weren't hiding behind the speaker, Jack settled down to play with his toys, occasionally chuckling at the sound of the characters' voices. The CD obviously didn't captivate him as much as the video, but he did applaud politely between tracks.

Older children also like the Teletubbies. Leah McKinley, age 7, is a fan because "they're cute." She especially favors Po, "because he's red and little and has a red scooter." Her brother, Mark, who's 5, says he listens to the Nursery Rhymes audiocassette daily. His favorite part is when he hears Noo Noo. "He's their pet, and he's a vacuum cleaner, "Mark explains. Asked whether he prefers the Teletubbies over Barney, Mark states adamantly, "I don't like Barney. Too acty! It's like he talks too much."

The Teletubbies, of course, don't talk too much. They gurgle and giggle and make blissed-out oohing noises, but talking isn't a big part of their repertoire. This detail makes the concept of a Teletubbies record seem like a stretch, but my admittedly unscientific research suggests a qualified success. Do the kids in your life need this CD? Probably not, but neither will they need the new record by Britney Spears or 'N Sync or whoever's pushing preteen pabulum a decade from now. Will the kids buy this CD? No, but you might just buy it for them, especially after they yank it off the store shelf and plant a big wet one on the jewel-box.

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