This great article in the NY times Television Section last week, written by Gina Bellafante, A NEW mother, who is also a television critic, is right ‘on point’! She writes that: it is inevitably asked whether she will permit her child to share her public pleasure. Friends and strangers have posed this question to me repeatedly since my son was born a year ago, and I have yet to formulate a position. I understand how addictive the medium is, but refusing it (as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends for children under age 2) feels too sanctimonious — and unrealistic. A baby getting increasingly mobile does not sit still during a changing of clothes unless, according to studies conducted in my living room, he’s put in front of a TV for a minute or two — whether it’s “iCarly” or Harry Reid on “Morning Joe.” And fathers who love sports tend to feel that ESPN does not count as actual television. There may be toddlers who, though they have never watched a single second of “Dora the Explorer,” could hand you a nacho and talk third-down conversions.
But is it fair to force a child to live on Crimson Tide football alone? With this in mind, I approached an informal critical survey of Sprout. Begun five years ago by PBS, Sesame Workshop and several private media companies, Sprout is aimed at 2- to 5-year-olds and competes with channels like Nick Jr. It borrows programming previously shown on the air — the still odious “Barney & Friends,” the still unsurpassable “Sesame Street,” and so on — for some part of the day and devotes the mornings, a portion of the afternoon and the evening to original blocks of shows that are meant to correspond with the rhythms of the hour. The channel has a cheerful, earnest Yankee sense of industry about it, in line with the current fashion in parenting for scheduling.
Sprout bills itself as the first “24-hour preschool destination available on TV.” Assuming that 24/7, quasi-educational television for small children was a plan to create a nation of super creatures who could best their Beijing peers, I asked a Sprout representative whom the intended 2 a.m. viewer might be. Apparently it is a child with a runny nose or a fever — or anxieties about making potholders — who cannot return to sleep. Sprout must be commended for ensuring that no American mother will be forced to confront her child’s insomnia with viewings of Cindy Crawford’s Skin Care Secrets infomercial ever again.
“The Sunny Side Up Show,”which runs each morning, for instance, is meant to be a kind of “Today” show for toddlers. Just like “Today,” it is live and has its own versions of Willard Scott, positioned on sets seemingly forged from Play-Doh who say things like, “Milo is 4 and Milo is from Peru, Ind., and it is windy there.” Why this is better than subjecting a child to an actual NBC weather map is unclear. Later in the day, “The Sprout Sharing Show,” a kind of show-and-tell that features videos submitted by viewers, feels less like mini-adult television. But “The Good Night Show,” intended to help children decompress, returned this viewer to a state of confusion. The emphasis on activity and knowledge acquisition didn’t necessarily seem compatible with the effects of a glass of zinfandel on an exhausted mother. In one bit a mama bear instructed her child in the virtue of exercise. There were lessons in foreign words and echolocation (that’s animal sonar, for you adults).
By far the most interesting of the series is Sprout’s new live-action program, “Noodle and Doodle,” on weekend mornings. It too has an idle-hands-and-minds-are-the-devil’s-workshop feel about it. The emphasis is on making things — bird feeders out of yogurt containers and ketchup-bottle lids, bricks from milk cartons. The food revolution has extended its tentacles here, too, resulting in a recipe for spiky, rice-infused meatballs. All right, you won’t find this on “The Barefoot Contessa.”
But no matter how well meaning the intent of any given “educational” series, you have to wonder whether learning (and quite possibly quickly forgetting) the concept of echolocation right before bedtime is any more valuable than letting a child finger-paint on an iPad instead. “Sid the Science Kid” on PBS devotes entire episodes to lethargically unpacking concepts like elasticity and friction when a few punchy minutes on rubber bands or hair scrunchies would seem to do.
Programs like these, and the popular series “Yo Gabba Gabba!” on Nick Jr., make you appreciate the extent to which the Pixar and “Sesame Street” empires work on two levels, speaking intelligently to children and parents. What distinguishes “Yo Gabba Gabba!” from the mindless “Teletubbies” of a decade ago, I’m not so sure. Both seemed forged in a hazy, psychedelic reverie. The host of “Yo Gabba Gabba!” is a character called DJ Lance Rock, who talks to children as though he has never met one, which is possible given that he seems to be living inside a Dee-Lite video.
“Sesame Street” began its 41st season last week, with simple ideas like comfort explained by guests like Jason Bateman. A lot of television for small children is so earnestly listless it seems almost intended to keep parents away. That leads to the unintended effect of making television that most evil of all possible things, a de facto baby sitter. For better or worse, moms on the second shift require a little more. Or at least this one does. We may just hold out until the kid can watch “Dexter.”