The four little, roly-poly toddlers with the ET faces are standing in their underground bomb shelter of a home when suddenly what looks like a periscope rises up out of the floor.
"Eh-oh," they say in unison, gathering around the device and staring intently at it.
Then an adult voice from inside the gadget says, "Trot-trot, trot-trot, trot-trot, trot-trot." And the four tiny creatures dutifully start marching in place.
The scene is going to strike some as positively Orwellian, and it is but one of many moments in the new PBS children's series, "Teletubbies," that is going to be fiercely debated by parents, educators, day care providers and child advocates in coming days. "Teletubbies" looks like the biggest and most controversial deal in kids' TV since "Sesame Street" debuted in 1968.
The two most controversial aspects of the British import are its symbolism and the fact that it is targeting children as young as 1 year old. That is six months younger than any previous show, according to Dan Anderson, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who did much of the pioneering research on children and television for "Sesame Street."
The debate about symbolism centers on moments like the "trot-trot" one and the fact that the four Teletubbies -- Dipsy, Laa-Laa, Tinky Winky and Po -- have antenna-like devices on their heads and television sets in their tummies.
One of the highlights of each episode occurs when a giant pinwheel in Teletubbyland starts to spin and send out sound waves that look like sparkles or magic dust. "Eh-oh," the four shout in unison as soon as this happens. Then, after some excited running or jumping in place, they lay on their backs and kick their legs in the air like beetles.
What they are so excited about is that the magic waves will connect with the antenna on one of their heads, making it glow and hum and bring the video screen on that lucky tubby's tummy to life.
Some parents are going to find this pinwheel-to-antenna-to-TV-set-tummy ritual downright troubling. Different people can read the same symbol different ways, but I don't think there's any doubt that the tummy TVs and the tubbies' delight at their sets lighting up are teaching 1-year-olds to love television. And that has enormous cultural implications.
Dorothy Singer, of Yale University's Family Research and Consultation Center, objects to both the video screens on the tummies and the age of the target audience.
"Gearing a show for very young children goes against everything I believe in. Children this age should be exploring the world, awakening all their senses. You don't get that from watching TV," she says.
Alice Cahn, the head of children's television on PBS, counters by saying, "What's so sacrosanct about 1-year-olds? Whether we as a society like it or not, kids that age watch TV. Isn't it better if they are watching something that was made for them on public television?"
Asked about the television sets on tummies, Cahn says, "All I can tell you is what Anne Wood [the co-creator of the series] told me, which is that kids that age are fascinated with their stomachs. So, that's why she put the televisions there."
Wood explains the TV tummies and the talking periscope as part of an attempt to teach children to be comfortable with technology.
"We started with the idea that babies are growing up in a technological world, so we wanted to make a world that was safe and also in some ways technological. Teletubbyland is a cross between the land where television comes from and a nursery rhyme land," she says.
Another way of putting that: Television is portrayed to children as the new magic kingdom, the realm of the fantastic that used to exist mainly in the pretend worlds visited in bedtime stories.
There are other elements of the show that will draw fire, like thebaby talk: "Beautiful flower" comes out "bootifel flaaer."
Singer says, "Children need to be exposed to good language." And, isn't PBS one of the places that should be happening?
Besides smelling a "bootifel flaaer" and catching the television soundwaves in their tummies, a good day for the four is playing hide-and-seek, sharing a big hug and bumping into each other at tummy level and falling on their backs in giggles. They also love saying, "again, again," and having something repeated.
Today, it's a film clip that is shown on one of their tummies. The clip features a 4-year-old named Emily and her horse, Jester.
"Dis is Emoowee," a child narrator says. "She is fouw. Dis is Emoowee's howse, Jestowe. Jestowe is a good howse. Emoowee wuvs Jestowe."
This goes on for about three minutes. Then, just as Emily and Jester finally trot off the screen, the tubbies squeal "again, again," and the clip plays all the way through a second time.
Annoying for adults? Sure.
But listen, Mom and Dad, don't make the same mistake we did with Barney: looking at it through adult eyes and dismissing it with wisecracks. "Teletubbies" could be one of the most profound cognitive and cultural encounters of your kids' lives. Make sure you watch it with them if you can. If not, make sure you see it first and then think about whether or not you want them connecting with the tube this intensely at their age.
"Teletubbies raises questions that we don't yet have answers to," says Anderson, a professor of psychology. "We don't know the impact of what watching TV at that age has on children. We just don't know. PBS is putting it on before we know what the effects might be."
Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67)
When: 10 a.m. and 3: 30 p.m. weekdays
Pub Date: 4/06/98