Baby's first television

An excerpt from the cover of Dade Hayes' "Anytime Playdate."

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Tess Vigeland: When I was growing up way back in the 1970s, for TV entertainment after school we had Sesame Street, the Electric Company and Mr. Rogers. And there were all those Saturday morning cartoons -- at least that's what I hear, since they were verboten in our house.

These days, the entertainment choices seem endless. Kids have TiVo and iPods and entire networks dedicated to them, from Disney to Nickelodeon.

Variety magazine's Dade Hayes started to pay attention to this rattle battle once he became a Dad and he's written a new book about the children's entertainment industry. It's called "Anytime Playdate."

Welcome to the program, Dade.

Dade Hayes: Happy to be here.

Vigeland: I love the story early in the book where you talk about how you made the decision -- I don't remember how old your daughter was, but she was still very little -- and you decided to co-view with her. Tell us about that and how and why it ended.

Hayes: Well, they call it co-viewing if you're able to actually sit on the couch or wherever it is and watch a program with your child and ideally help guide them through it and interact with your child along with the program, but I really did notice that she was kind of having her own experience and I just didn't know much about this whole world, so that's when I decided to really investigate it and find out where this stuff comes from and I wasn't going in with any real agenda except for concern for my daughter and for kids.

Vigeland: Well, you point out that children's entertainment is now a $21 billion business -- that is stunning -- and it's three times what it was just a decade ago. Now the old line on that would be that this is not a good thing, that all of this passive entertainment is unhealthy for kids. What did you find?

Hayes: I was surprised when I really spent a lot of time with producers and executives. I was surprised and impressed with the degree of professionalism and thoroughness that they treated these things with. I followed one particular show that just premiered in February on Nickelodeon called "Ni Hao, Kai-lan," which is Mandarin for "Hello, Kai-lan." It's actually teaching kids Mandarin in the way that "Dora the Explorer" teaches Spanish and that show took four years to get to the air because they want to get it right. So I don't want to sound like too much of a booster; I found plenty of stuff that was a little distressing.

Vigeland: Certainly they would not oppose if "Ni Hao, Kai-lan" all of the sudden sparked a bunch of kids to go out and buy it on the store shelves?

Hayes: Well, that's just it. The most cynical among people in this business refer to these TV shows as just 22-minute toy commercials, that they're really just teasers for people to go out and consume these characters in myriad ways. Let's take a step back and think about how ubiquitous Dora is. Let's just use Dora: she's a ride at a theme park in Dubai, she's on toys and, I mean, you name it, she's on it and certainly, as a parent, I feel a bit daunted by it. If you look at the underpinnings of this business, it's not as carefully controlled as the actual program on television.

Vigeland: I wonder though, is the marketing of new characters like Dora or, say, The Wiggles, is it any different from what we saw with, say, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie and the Mickey Mouse Club for that matter? I mean, I certainly remember having puppets and other merchandise that was tied to those shows.

Hayes: You know, it's a very good point. I can even go back another generation. In the book, I look at the sort of godhead of all this stuff, which is Howdie Doodie. In the 1950s, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of merchandise were racked up over the course of the 1950s, which, you can imagine with inflation how much we're talking about.

Vigeland: As you were finishing the book, you and your wife had a second child and I wonder if you're planning to do anything differently in terms of his exposure to all this children's programming?

Hayes: I have to say I was pretty profoundly affected by my investigation into baby videos...

Vigeland: You mean like Baby Einstein?

Hayes: Baby Einstein and the myriad other baby videos that are out there. That is an area that I still have deep concerns about. I'm all for something with a demonstrable benefit, but when you're talking about... I mean, there are now TV networks -- BabyTV and BabyFirstTV -- that are aimed at 3-month-old to 36-month-old kids and I just feel like that's sort of the final frontier.

Vigeland: Dade Hayes is the author of "Anytime Playdate: Inside the Preschool Entertainment Boom, or, How Television Became My Baby's Best Friend." Thanks for setting a playdate with us.

Hayes: Absolutely Tess. Thanks very much.

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