Kids like everybody else in America have too many choices of TV to watch. With this quantity, a good bit is schlock, and some of it downright insidious. But there are some bright spots in this firmament. One of them is Rugrats, a program that is both successful and appealing. Tommy, Chucky, Angelica, and the twins are grotesquely adorable. And their moth-eaten parents are absolutely unflappable, full of praise and hugs for the tykes no matter how big a mess they make in the bathroom. For five years or so, Rugrats has been one of the most popular programs on cable. With its strength, Nickelodeon has quietly become the most lucrative network. Its profit margin now exceeds 50%, compared to 30% for ESPN or 15% for NBC. CBS and Fox are mired in negative territory. Not only has the TV show succeeded, but the Rugrats Movie is also the hit of the holiday season so far. And despite the objectionable merchandising campaigns to peddle Rugrats stuff in every hamburger stand on the planet, the program loses none of its charm. Hawking junk related to cartoons is an unfortunate byproduct of the Kids TV industry. Consider the folks who make mouse ears; they devised most of these schemes.
But Rugrats wristwatches are friendly persuasion compared to the exploitation of Teletubbies, the latest video intrusion from Great Britain. Some folks in the TV biz, especially those at the Public Broadcasting System, seem to think that if it comes from the BBC, it has to be good. Hogwash! Teletubbies is an excellent example of the contrary. Teletubbies are multicolored imps with skins like a Dr. Denton's Bunny Sleeper, modified to include a TV screen in their chubby abdominal cavities. Despite the technological magic involved, Teletubbies is targeted at very young children. For the first time, a producer has created a program that kids under age 2 will watch. Now we can get 'em hooked on TV before the soft spots in their heads heal. The latest merchandising ploy is truly cunning - Teletubby dolls with a real TV set in their bellies, so the kids can watch Teletubbies with their own Teletubby on their own Tubbietelly. That's an idea right out of George Orwell.
But truly the ugliest TV for kids continues to be the commercials and the images they evoke. Have you seen the spot for Nintendo where the kid gets the first paycheck from his first job? He sees that it's just enough for the latest Nintendo system, so in the true spirit of contemporary American work ethic, he quits his job to play video games for the rest of his life. How's he going to buy game cartridges or a new improved Nintendo 3 months from now? I'm all for humor in advertising, but the underlying message of how to be an indolent consumer is not very funny. Besides, kids shouldn't worry about money. They should pester their parents instead.
So where is this all leading? Will Rugrats or Teletubbies be the model for future kids TV programs? Can we look ahead to a generation of TV viewers who are entertained by the medium or one for whom TV, and the images it promulgates, are extensions of their bodies? Fortunately, kids TV as we know it may not be as potent in the future. Youngsters will replace it by whipping their brains into kinetic frenzies while playing Nintendo and surfing the World Wide Web. What a relief.