Before I tackle the more general topic of the decline of television … I shall rant firstly about children’s television. As the father of a 4-year-old, I only get a few moments per week of control of the remote and I try to reserve them for an occasional sports event.
When I was a kid, if you missed your favorite kids show, you missed it – plain and simple. Now in the age of VCRs, DVRs, Recordable DVDs, and “On-Demand” cable … the kids can watch their favorite shows whenever they want. And in theory this is good. When I was young, I remember the hell we put our parents through trying to rush them through the Friday night supermarket trip to get home in time for The Brady Bunch.
What an innocent time, when kids’ prime time TV favorite was the story of a semi-functional step family … headed by the only architect in the world who would choose to raise six kids in a three-bedroom house.
I learned two great life lessons watching this show …
First … thanks to Greg …
When mom finds cigarettes in your jacket pocket, be thankful she didn’t dig further and unearth the condoms.
And second … thanks to Marcia …
When catching a football pass above the shoulders, one must place his/her thumbs together, and watch the ball into your hands ... otherwise one’s nose might be fractured.
But even with all the recordable options today, the kids still want the DVDs of the shows … episodes they have seen hundreds of times mind you, or could access through ‘On-Demand’ … but at $14-$20 a pop, the kids want what the kids want!
Like grown-up TV, kids TV has suffered from the expansion of available television channels. The vast quantity of stations has spawned a quality vacuum as the air time must be filled with something … anything … to get those little buggers to watch … preferably something that one can use to market teeth-rottening sweetened cereals … or better yet … the merchandising of the show itself.
Queen of the 30-minute commercial / kid’s shows is “Dora the Marketing Opportunity Explorer.”
From blankets to books to crayons to clothes … Dora is the Martha Stewart of Kids World. My child has Dora toys, cups, shirts, pajamas and of course … a backpack.
But let’s examine this show a little.
Dora is praised by children's tv critics and by educators, for teaching kids Spanish. She is clearly Mexican, much to the slight of our Cuban and Puerto Rican Spanish-speaking Americans. One of her gang is always “swiping” things. How does that go down as a stereotypical portrail of the Spanish-speaking community in this, our supposedly enlightened age of political correctness?
Dora engages in adventures that always require her to traverse three obstacles (with the aid of a talking map – I see an opening for some cross marketing with Garmin GPS inc.) She makes her audience repeat those three obstacles with her … For example ..
“To get to the prize (maybe a job as a migrant fruit picker) we have to get past the Rio Grande River …. The border patrol … and Fear-mongering Republicans … Say it with me … Rio Grande River … border patrol … fear-mongering republicans!”
Dora was so popular that she launched a spin-off of more adventures with her male cousin Diego ... thus furthering the angst of people like Pat Buchanan ... promoting xenophobia ... that once one gets in, they'll bring in their relatives!
Another extrememly popular kids’ show is “The Wiggles” … An Aussie quartet of cheesy musicians who sing kids songs about fruit salad. These four 30-40-something single males like kids a lot and I know I am not supposed to, but I find that a little frightening. They hang around with a pirate and a dinosaur (who doesn’t?) and dress in their own solid color, looking a bit like outback Starfleet Academy rejects.
Musically simple and kid friendly, the Wiggles are a sort of preschool Beatles (the nice ones - before they grew their hair long). I suppose that leaves ... in the Rolling Stones (bad boy) role ... the Doodlebops ... who are musically more original and even let their bus driver do the rap parts. I know I am looking at a lifetime of therapy for admitting this, but I can't help nut find DeeDee Doodle a little attractive in a "I wonder what she looks like under the face paint and chalky foam skin?" kind of way.
Then, there's "The Little Einsteins" This Disney channel favorite, features four kids who fly all over in a rocket ship. There are two females and two males (one of whom is black - thus meeting the P.C. requirement - although only the white male gets to drive the rocket).
These four imps set off on fantastic adventures where each episode has a featured classical composer and an artist. What that has to do with Einstein is beyond me. I never heard Einstein's "Quantum Concerto in MC squared minor" for example. I suppose they'll come up with a kid's show about science and call it "Little Mozarts"?
Perhaps even more disturbing to me is the friekish familiarity that the Leo character invokes ... as if he is someone else from another time ... someone I knew and trusted as a youth. Could it be? I'm not sure but ... perhaps if I jumped into my 'way-back' machine, I could go back to the children's TV of my youth and see that Leo is infact, the 3rd millenium incarnation of Sherman!
Another favorite program of my 4-year-old is "Bear in the Big Blue House" ... although you have to get up with the farmers these days for its (6 AM) airing on Playhouse Disney. Bear is a likeable fellow. I am always slightly squirmish when TV teaches pre-schoolers that bears and other ferocious animals are really just big friendly teacher types.
"Bear" did release a very popular and effective home video aid for toilet/potty training ... where the characters all sing that they are "toiletteers"! ... thus eternally confusing our youngsters to the question ... "does a bear shit in the woods?" - Not unless he has a potty out there.
It's amazing how the innocently delivered sub-messages of kids' shows can serve to confuse us well into our school years. I remember when I was in first grade, thinking that ... in terms of chronological history ... the caveman days must have come after colonial times ... because the Flintstones were cavemen, yet they had cars, record players, bowling alleys etc. whilst the colonials wrote with feathers by candlelight.
Another program that baffles me is "Caillou" ... the inquistively whining milquetoast chemotherapy-looking, bald kid, with the wimpy enabler parents. They give this kid a first name (pronounced "Kie-you") that sounds like a cajun word for "let the playground beatings begin" and if that's not enough to ensure misfit status, they give him less hair than Charlie Brown.
Although Americans must take the blame for the origins of the most irritating tv character (no, not Bill O'Reilly) ... I talk of course of Barney ... the mainstays of irritating kids characters comes from England. They of course gave us The Teletubbies, Bob the Builder and Thomas the Tank Engine.
However, the Brits also gave us one of the most enduring classics in Winnie the Pooh. Brits were rightfully beside themselves when Disney purchased the rights to Pooh from the family of A.A. Milne.
Though waning in popularity ... "so last year" according to most preschoolers ... "Sponge Bob" continues to irk parents on a daily basis. The so-called multi-level humor - ie, a portion of the humor that will go over the heads of the kids, but can be appreciated by the parents - is in the mold of "Ren & Stimpy" ... but at least "Ren & Stimpy" were targeted to adults first and kids second, unlike our porous, sea-faring, absorbant, bottom-feeding friend.
And inevitably of course, there's "Boo Bah"
Teaching our children, the ins and outs ... of what is essentially a boob box acid trip ... these rotund furry carbon-based globules of existence, streak across the sky, leaving colorful trails and communicating in some sort of squeek language under the guise of children's educational television. Somewhere in the dark recesses of the creator's mind, lies a freudian nightmare laced with laudnum induced apocalyptic visions ... sort of Jim Henson meets Colonel Walter E. Kurtz.
Sesame Street continues on. Though I was just a tad too old to be into the 'Street' when it premiered, it is still recognized as the leader in preschool educational TV. Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood is still being aired though I am pretty sure Fred Rogers has gone to that big cardigan-wearing magic kingdom in the sky, which is a little difficult to explain to a 4-year-old.
By the way, here is a little trivia you can use at your next cocktail soiree ... Fred Rogers was born in Latrobe, PA. ... the same town that gave us Rolling Rock beer ... which is kind of 'sneakers and old sweater' brew ... watered-down and harmless ... but still ... in a weird and twisted kind of way .. it's kind of a strange coincidence ...max respect Mr. R.!
While I doubt Fred actually ever downed a six of 'ponies' ... at least he didn't hail from Intercourse, PA.
But of the children's TV of my (late baby boomer) generation, what's wrong with showing the kids the classics ... the gratuitously violent, non-educational, mind-numbingly simple, child-occupying drivel that I loved so much? I speak of Top Cat, Sylvestor the Cat, Tom & Jerry, Felix the Cat, Josie and the Pussycats (I had an early feline fixation) ... not to mention Bugs Bunny, Road Runner, The Wacky Racers, Prince Planet, Speed Racer, Astroboy, Aquaman et al.
For non-animated classics, we had 'Juvenile Jury' (Insert your own OJ joke here).
There was also Captain Kangaroo, though I personally didn't dig the Captain. As a child of the late 60's I was far more into the groovy "Romper Room" where (belive it or not) an oversized bumble bee (waiting for a break in Mexican TV no doubt) called "Mr. Doobie" ... aided the scary Orwellian hostess (Miss Sally) to look through a glassless mirror to (as she claimed) SEE through the TV and see who was watching her! Oh FREAK me out and instill a lifetime of issues on me why don't ya!
Kids' TV today is too commercial-driven to be creative but the multimedia availability is something I would have loved to have had as a kid. Now as a parent I can only long for the day when my child outgrows this tripe and uses the TV what it's meant for ... the XBox!
Can it be long before Kids 'reality' TV comes along? Rumer has it that PBS is developing a potty training reality show called "Poop Idol".