Miércoles 24 de Mayo de 2006, Ip nº 154

BabyFirst: Television Steps Perilously Close to the Womb
Por Dave Itzkoff

WHO can we now rely upon in an age when Big Bird is no longer considered trustworthy? Earlier this year, when the Sesame Workshop released a DVD series, "Sesame Beginnings," designed for children 6 months to 2 years old, it sparked a surprisingly intense debate: public health advocates attacked the studio behind Bert and Ernie, insisting that no amount of television viewing is appropriate for children that young.

Yet the more fervently the television industry is warned about such dangers, the more intently it seems to want to touch the stove. The Disney Channel has recently turned "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse," an animated show intended to reintroduce Walt Disney's cash rodent to preschoolers aged 2 to 5, into a bona fide hit.

And last week, a channel called BabyFirstTV, initially available to DirecTV subscribers, became the first 24-hour cable and satellite network to offer programming aimed at viewers between 6 months and 3 years old.

Before advocacy groups take their shot BabyFirstTV, perhaps they should give a thought — quickly, before Viacom launches MTV Zygote and Nickelodeon Embryo — to the poor programmers charged with developing such content. Toddlers may be good at communicating what they want in a sippee cup, but they are not nearly as effective at conveying what they want in a television show: they simply will not sit still at focus groups, and are more likely to masticate extensive research questionnaires than to fill them out.

The founders of BabyFirstTV (including a former executive of the advertising firm BBDO and the former head of operations for the Israeli Network) clearly came prepared to immunize their offspring against the same criticism that "Sesame Beginnings" faced: they issued a guidebook full of approving pediatricians, psychologists and educators and the repeated injunction to parents to take an active role in their children's viewing. The guide says that television can "enlighten your baby's experience by opening up a world of imagination and images that he ordinarily wouldn't see in everyday life."

As you'd expect from new parents, it all sounds a bit boastful and a bit defensive. Especially when measured against the actual content of BabyFirstTV, some of the most gently benign programming ever to float across the airwaves. In almost every way, BabyFirstTV is an ideal match for its prospective demographic — at its best it is spirited, lively and full of simple wonder, and at its worst it is utterly innocuous.

The lineup consists entirely of short-form videos, both live-action and animated. There are no commercial breaks between shorts, and as viewers more accustomed to "CSI," "24" or "The O'Reilly Factor" will immediately notice, the pacing is decidedly unhurried: when an on-screen graphic introduces a segment about giraffes, you can expect several minutes of grazing herbivores, and when a cartoon jigsaw puzzle assembles itself, you'd better believe its pieces will try every possible configuration before the picture is complete.

Beyond the consistently bright palettes and upbeat instrumental music found in each video, the only element that unites these shorts is the BabyFirstTV logo, a smiling flower whose petals change color to indicate the types of skills the segment is intended to teach: a yellow flower, for example, signifies a lesson on patterns of thinking (like a recurring, one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other routine called "What's Different?"), while red stands for language and vocabulary (a short film about sign language), and pink means social and emotional skills (a video of children playing in a park).

The gradations can be so subtle at times that one wonders if the distinctions are even necessary, particularly when some of BabyFirstTV's best segments are those that teach lessons that can't be as easily categorized — catchy songs about why it's O.K. for a parent to put your security blanket in the washing machine, or what will happen if you try to cram too many things in a closet — or those that appear to teach no lesson at all.

It is when BabyFirstTV devotes valuable minutes to images of nothing more complicated than exotic animals wandering in the jungle, or infants playing in a pit of plastic balls, that it comes closest to fulfilling its mission: providing its young audience with one more window into an exciting, unknown world where every sensory stimulation is brand new, and is potentially being experienced for the very first time.

And if BabyFirstTV's viewers are anything like this former child, they will eagerly anticipate the many short films that introduce them to the experience of creating art, like "Picture Pad," in which a pair of disembodied hands slooooowly sketches an illustration with colored pencils, and "Sandman," an utterly transfixing segment in which an artist draws a picture with his fingertips on a backlit canvas of sand. (Not surprisingly, "Sandman" turns up with particular frequency on "Rainbow Dreams," the channel's late-night schedule meant to lull restless viewers of all ages back to sleep.)

What none of these videos seem to need are the superimposed cloud graphics that appear at the bottom of screen from time to time, containing textual reminders to parents that all but insist how each segment should be experienced with one's child ("Name and describe the objects on the screen to your infant"; "Make the animal's sound and encourage your child to do the same").

If BabyFirstTV is confident that its programming contains educational value, then it should also be confident that parents can figure out this value for themselves, and flexible enough to allow parents to use its programming in ways they may not have intended or anticipated. (Can't a segment about a family of lions teach more than the fact that they go "Roar"?) As they are used now, these interruptions feel less like an encouragement for parents to stay involved, and more like a gentle scolding to adults whose own attention spans may be momentarily waning.

To its credit, BabyFirstTV does not exude the same high-pressure atmosphere surrounding the Disney-owned "Baby Einstein" video series, which convinces parents they have failed if their progeny are not certifiable geniuses by the time they turn 2.

Nor does it exist to promote a boundless cornucopia of licensed merchandise; though BabyFirstTV is populated by its share of anthropomorphized mice, elephants and rabbits, and at least one cartoon jackdaw voiced by the Welsh actor Rhys Ifans, none of these characters have been commodified on American shores as stuffed toys, board games or designer baby bibs. This is a commendable quality, but it may also prove to be a stumbling block as the channel tries to establish itself on a cultural landscape already dominated by "Teletubbies," "Dora the Explorer" and Jim Henson's unparalleled Muppet pantheon.

Where BabyFirstTV will likely suffer most is in the minds of older viewers who cannot help but compare it to their own halcyon memories of "Sesame Street." BabyFirstTV may not yet have its own set of recognizable icons for children to latch on to, but the more obvious deficiency is its lack of pacing: there are no apparent thematic threads that tie its segments together — no obvious reasons why a video short about fingers and thumbs should be followed by a cartoon about what sound a duck makes, followed by another cartoon about what scientists do. Without a clearly defined beginning, middle and end to its programming blocks, there is no compelling need to turn on BabyFirstTV at any particular time of day, but more tellingly, there is no obvious indication — other than the alarm bells on an adult's internal clock — that it is time to turn it off.

In all fairness, "Sesame Street" has had more than 35 years to perfect its art, while BabyFirstTV has only been on the air a few days, and if its only ambition is to offer a few simple lessons in an entertaining and occasionally surprising format, it deserves many more months to hone its lineup.

There may be innumerable other purveyors of educational content that in the course of a sing-along song about the alphabet would fall back on predictable words like "fox" and "X-ray" to demonstrate the sound made by the letter X. But BabyFirstTV is thus far the only outlet I've seen that would go the extra distance and illustrate this point with the surreal image of a cartoon fox, its bones aglow as it stands behind an X-ray machine. Given enough time, the channel could eventually forge a language of its own from those same 26 familiar, perpetually mystifying symbols.


  21/05/2006. The New York Times.