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'Teletubbies' Turns 20

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'Teletubbies' Turns 20

Television

'Teletubbies' Turns 20

'Teletubbies' Turns 20

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The children's show Teletubbies is celebrating its 20th anniversary. NPR's Scott Simon talks with former PBS executive Alice Cahn about the show's popularity and criticism from some parents.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Here's a song that might take you back.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TELETUBBIES")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Tinky-Winky.

MARK HEENEHAN: (As Tinky-Winky) Tinky-Winky.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Dipsy.

JOHN SIMMIT: (As Dipsy) Dipsy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Laa-Laa.

NIKKY SMEDLEY: (As Laa-Laa) Laa-Laa.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Po.

PUI FAN LEE: (As Po) Po.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Teletubbies.

SIMON: "Teletubbies," the toddler-targeted TV show marks its 20th anniversary since it was originally launched in the United Kingdom. "Teletubbies" has been translated into dozens of languages and seen in over 120 countries. American parents can thank - or maybe not - Alice Cahn for "Teletubbies" here in the United States. She's a children's programming consultant who imported the show stateside when she worked for PBS. Alice Cahn, thanks so much for being with us.

ALICE CAHN: It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

SIMON: So these colorful big-bellied slightly alien-looking friends with televisions in their bellies, what did you think when you first saw them?

CAHN: I was amazed. I've been watching children's television and programming children's television since it was radio. And to see the bucolic "Teletubbies" landscape and those wonderful characters, I had never seen anything like it. And the wonderful thing about "Teletubbies" is there was no need to translate it. It was a true...

SIMON: I was going to add, we - I said translated into 120 languages. But how do you translate yahhh (ph)?

CAHN: Yeah. Well, and that's the beauty of this series is that it was a mirror on their world no matter where you lived, whether you lived in the U.K. or the U.S. or all the countries globally that the series broadcast.

SIMON: There were complaints, I don't have to tell you, that it was programming that encouraged parents to park their kids in front of television sets way too early, at a time when they ought to be interacting with children.

CAHN: You know, it was the early days of young preschool television. And as the late great Peggy Charren used to say, children deserve as many options as grown-ups. And when "Teletubbies" came on our screens in the late '90s, it was one of those exciting options for young children that I think academics and I think researchers - their research caught up with the series and realized that it offered young children an opportunity to experience the world in ways that their parents really valued.

SIMON: OK. So you don't endorse the idea that this was just enabling parents to not interact with their children?

CAHN: I don't. When you as an adult watch "Teletubbies," you had an opportunity to kind of get an extra squint into how your kids thought and how your kid played and what was important to your child. And that's something incredibly unique.

SIMON: What happens when you meet parents and they find out about the "Teletubbies" in your history?

CAHN: (Laughter) It's pretty polarizing. I'd say it's about a 70-30 split. Seventy percent of folks are like great, I love the show. And about 30 percent of the people just really don't want to talk to me and think that I was, you know, sending them to hell in a handbasket. And I think what's important to remember as adults is that historically every new technology, every new creative iteration faces some criticism.

After the introduction of the original nickelodeons in the early 1900s, people thought that going to the movies was going to really be to the detriment of American society. When radio began in the '20s and '30s and kids were listening to adventure shows - that, you know, kids were not going outside to play. They were just glued to the radio. So every new technology and every creative iteration faces some kind of criticism until we figure out how it works for us.

SIMON: Alice Cahn, who's a former PBS executive. Thanks so much for being with us. And aahh (ph).

CAHN: (Laughter) My pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.

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