Bouncing blobs of energy, or new low in kids' shows?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Boohbah.

A sneeze?

A new Winnie-the-Pooh character?

Neither. But those two silly-sounding syllables just may form one of the most important new words learned this year by parents of preschool children.

Boohbah is the newest variation in television fare for kids. Created by Anne Wood, the controversial mastermind behind the phenomenally successful television show Teletubbies, the new PBS program is available in 99 million homes.

Remember Teletubbies? It's the show criticized because it featured fuzzy little creatures with TV sets inserted into their stomachs. (It also created a stir in 1998 when the Rev. Jerry Falwell proclaimed it pushed a gay agenda after noticing that one Teletubby, Tinky Winky, seemed to be carrying a purse. )

Now Boohbah, on the air for only two weeks, is causing deep concern and widespread controversy among educators and experts on children's TV.

"I hate it. I hate everything about Boohbah. It's dreadful. It shows the desperation of PBS today compared to the late 1960s and the commercial-free public television of that era," said Dr. Michael Brody, a Washington-based psychiatrist who chairs the television and media committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

"I hate the merchandising connected with the show, and I hate the way Anne Wood and PBS say it is for one group of children [ages 3 to 6], while it is clearly targeting those who are younger [18 months to 2 years old]. I think parents should be very careful about letting their kids watch it," added Brody, who teaches a course in children and television at the University of Maryland in College Park.

"Hysteria" is the word the 66-year-old Wood used last week to characterize such criticism as Brody's. In a telephone interview from the headquarters of her Ragdoll production company in Stratford-on-Avon, an operation estimated to be worth as much as $260 million by the British press, Wood said she's "depressed" by what she sees as misunderstanding of both her work and the ways kids watch TV.

While there is a history of overreaction to children's television and the effects it might be having on young viewers, the concerns expressed by Brody and others have particular resonance in the wake of the recent deaths of TV pioneers Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers Neighborhood) and Bob Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo). The difference between the reassuring Fred Rogers in his fuzzy sweater and these frenetic, roly-poly creatures with robot-like heads, seems measurable in millenniums, not decades. The question is whether the change is good or bad for kids.

The show features five Boohbahs: Humbah, Jingbah, Jumbah, Zing Zing Zingbah and Zumbah. They're soft, giggly, sherbet-colored blobs of energy that live in a magical, shimmering ball of white light. (The ball zooms from one pastoral setting to another, bumping against children's tummies, making them jump for joy.) They sleep in womb-like pods within the sphere -- awakening at the beginning of each day's show and returning at the end.

For 30 minutes each weekday on PBS, they bounce around the TV screen, jiggling, dancing, crashing into each other, falling down, emitting flatulent sounds and acting silly. The only words they say are "boohbah" and '"bahbooh." The word "boohbah" becomes a kind of incantation throughout the show, used to announce movement from one segment to another.

Merchandising of show

Dr. Stacey O. Irwin, who teaches children and television at Towson University, sees a disconnect between such on-screen behavior and the target audience claimed by Wood and PBS. "The Web site for Boohbah says it is for children 3 to 6, but I think the content is a bit young for that age group," said Irwin, the mother of children ages 3 and 6. "I think they probably do not want to admit that children 2 and under are viewing it because the American Pediatrics Association strongly states that there should be no television for that age group."

Irwin said she also is troubled by a segment in Boohbah called Storyworld in which real-life kids give presents to a group of recurring characters (played by actors): Grandma and Grandpa, Mrs. Lady and Mr. Man, Brother and Sister, Auntie and Little Dog Fido. The presents serve as catalysts for fun or problem solving by the characters.

"It's just too conducive to the whole "give something to get something" mentality so prevalent today. Do we really need more consumerism?" she asked. "The merchandising has already started. It isn't much different than another big commercial for kids."

Brody goes her one better: "What Boohbah is about is making money, just like Teletubbies."

The merchandising at Ragdoll's Web site is intense: Boohbah collectibles, Boohbah spinners, Boohbah games, Boohbah soft toys and Boohbah light-up soft toys. The latter -- featuring "light up eyebrows, with various light patterns and sounds, including moving eyes and both clicking and air bellowing sounds" -- are the most expensive at $68 each. They are temporarily out of stock.

Wood makes no apology for the merchandising, and insists there's a difference between the content of Teletubbies and Boohbah and the audiences at which they are aimed. The difference involves "levels of movement," and the way that Boohbah exhorts children to be active, she says. If there is one thing that Wood wants parents to know about Boohbah it's that the show is designed above all else to get kids up off the couch and moving about the room.

"We assume a level of movement on the part of children and a level of recognition of movement in Boohbah that we never assumed in Teletubbies. By the age of 4, children have learned their bodies and they want to respond with movement," Wood said, describing how an 18-month-old baby responds to Teletubbies.

But Boohbah is designed to make children get up and dance.

Wood, a former high school teacher who has been involved with children's TV for about 40 years, is informed by her company's Children's Response Unit, a research team that monitors how children watch television by placing cameras in households throughout the United Kingdom.

That technique may hint of Big Brother, but it is an ethnographic research strategy widely used within the field of British Cultural Studies. Like anthropologists, disciples of cultural studies seek to see the world through the eyes of the group they are studying. And Wood views preschool children as the culture she is trying to understand from the inside out.

For better or worse, she's connecting with children on some level. More than 10 million cassettes of Teletubbies were sold in the United States alone in 1998, its first year on American TV. Boohbah is now in its second year on British TV, and the Boohbah costumes are already the rage in the UK.

Why PBS airs it

John S. Wilson, senior vice president for programming at PBS, said merchandising wasn't a factor in the decision to air Boohbah. "We begin with the show itself, and, frankly, I make my programming decisions here without anyone from businesses or licensing or anyone sitting at my elbow telling me this show is going to be a great moneymaking tool while another show isn't," Wilson said.

"I start with what the show will do in terms of adding a new look and feel and curriculum to our kids' lineup. And from there, a whole sequence of things takes place that extends the program beyond the screen into home video and into some areas of licensing. But that's after the fact, after I've made a call about whether I want this in our schedule or not."

Boohbah's curriculum is threefold, Wilson said. First, is "getting the kids up and off the couch." Each day's episode shows the Boohbahs having fun while doing exercises.

Second, the show aims to teach what Wilson calls "prescience fundamentals." In the pilot episode, for example, one story sequence, which is supposed to introduce young viewers to the concepts of near and far, involves a jump rope.

Last, the program encourages plain old fun, Wilson said. "As Anne keeps reminding us all: It is the child's first job in life to be silly, funny, nutty people, because that's what they're about. The joy of life has to be in there somewhere, too."

Few would disagree about the need for silliness. But when it comes to "prescience fundamentals," Brody prefers such traditional practices as children playing with building blocks. And as for exercise, Irwin says: "I agree with Anne Wood that movement is really good for children. So, turn off the TV and run around the house."

'Boohbah'

When: Airs weekday mornings at 10.

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67)

In brief: Hoping to be the next big thing with the pre-school set on PBS.

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