International stardom has not been easy for Tinky Winky, the Teletubby recently “outed” by the Rev. Jerry Falwell as a gay role-model for children. First there was a big flap in England, shortly after the show’s 1997 debut, over the dismissal of the actor playing Tinky Winky. Producers said he had been too rambunctious on the set. But the actor apparently endeared himself to viewers by flamboyantly waving the now-notorious red handbag, and did not go quietly. The Sun, Britain’s largest tabloid, launched a campaign to reinstate the actor, but to no avail.
Over the hills and far away, Teletubbies come to play. In Teletubbyland, a lush green landscape of undulating hills spotted with clumps of bright flowers, the world is safe and fun — a place to explore and learn through play. We know this because the sun baby, who rises over the set at the beginning of each episode, gurgles, coos and shrieks with pleasure at the adventures of the Teletubbies, four alien yet adorable, toddlerlike beings who live there, cared for and entertained by otherworldly gadgets. Teletubbies, the groundbreaking BBC children’s series that’s prompted both an outcry and a massive consumer craze since its debut last March debut in Britain, is about to arrive in the PBS schedule, April 6. The series is based on the premise — already much-debated in Britain — that very young children are watching television but don’t understand it, so they might as well have a show that’s designed for them.
Teletubbies haven’t officially landed in the U.S. public TV schedule yet, but they’ve already roused controversy in Britain and landed a great big licensing deal over here. Hasbro, makers of Playskool Baby and other major toy brands, will introduce a range of Teletubbies products–soft toys, figures, games, puzzles, bath toys and other items–by next fall. “It was important to find a partner who understands that young children need to be nurtured, not exploited,” said Kenn Viselman, president of the itsy bitsy Entertainment Co., which holds licensing rights to Teletubbies in the U.S. and Canada. Teletubbies, the children’s TV program that sparked both a craze and outrage in Britain with its debut on BBC2 this year, will begin airing on PBS’s Ready to Learn Service in April. If the British response to the show is any indication of what to expect from U.S. audiences, brace yourselves for a consumer grabfest of purple dinosaur proportions.