Rogers and Bell ExpressVu are currently offering free previews of BabyFirst TV, a U.S. service that provides 24-hour-a-day programming for infants and toddlers. Educational experts and pediatricians generally agree, at best, there is little value in exposing infants to television. For the record, I completely disapprove of plonking babies in front of TV sets and think the only purpose it can serve is to permanently ensnare children in the television habit by training them how to watch at an unnecessarily young age. When my son was an infant, I only tried a baby video once, and he showed no interest at all. Of course, if the darn thing had only put him to sleep, I would have been an instant convert to baby TV.
For parents and kids, children's television is both a blessing and a curse. It is not merely the electronic babysitter but also the electronic teacher, clown and drug pusher.
My son is now 3½ and we are, inevitably, just like its ingratiating little jingle says, watching Treehouse. Those who don't happen to live with a preschooler may require some explanation here: Treehouse is a Canadian-owned cable channel that offers high-quality cartoons such as Franklin, Little Bear, Thomas & Friends, Max & Ruby and The Berenstain Bears, 24 hours a day. (What poor soul, I sometimes wonder, is watching Ants in Your Pants, a show of music videos for toddlers, at 2 in the morning?)
It also airs live-action programming including This is Emily Yeung and This is Daniel Cook, two excellent shows in which the precocious six-year-old hosts do everything from driving tractors and swimming with dolphins to making strawberry jam. Approvingly, I push their shows at my somewhat reluctant son, who often asks me if the people on television are real, yet always finds animated creatures more engaging than live ones.
With the exception of the occasional mention of a sponsor, Treehouse is entirely commercial-free. There is, of course, high-quality, commercial-free programming for preschoolers every morning on CBC, TVOntario and PBS, but only Treehouse gives us the cartoons we like every time we turn on the set.
It is a parent's dream. The child is cranky, overtired, overwrought, uptight, sleepy, sick or just plain bored; the caregivers are equally tired or bored, too busy to play or just want to eat dinner in peace: the family turns reflexively to Treehouse. I love the way my son grins with delight at the opening sequence of Little Bear or will debate with me the merits of Big Comfy Couch, which he likes better than I do. I hate it when, after 30 minutes or so, he is so hypnotized by watching he won't answer questions.
Whether we admit it or not, his parents have gradually trained him to watch television. We began with the occasional video or DVD when he was 2, then starting regularly renting and borrowing copies of Franklin, the only thing he would watch for a while because he found the alternatives frightening. (There was a nasty encounter between a train and tree that put him off Thomas & Friends for months.) And then we discovered Treehouse.
At first, we had to explain how the technology works: He found it difficult to accept that this kind of video, just like that recalcitrant CD player called the radio, could not be rewound or paused. (Like all parents, we have our own arbitrary limits: We decided early on that the personal video recorder is an adult toy, and will not be used to replay the three minutes of a cartoonmissed during a pee break.)
My son's favourite show is now The Backyardigans, those surreal little animals who play out fantasy vacations and sing their own show tunes against hyper-real digital backgrounds. But he'll try anything: He has become very familiar with the pace and the storytelling techniques of television and he trusts Treehouse to deliver.
Television is a medium that can let you visit with alien life forms, an opportunity that should be taken up occasionally, in a horizon-broadening kind of way. Take, for example, the denizens of Pimp My Ride (MTV, 9 pm. ET), the automotive makeover show. These are creatures whose lives revolve around leather seats, custom paint jobs and really loud car stereos, yet they still seem to be warm and intelligent beings.
Tonight marks the premiere of a new season and, in the threat-or-promise category, MTV has announced that this will be its last. In this episode, Pimp My Ride host Xzibit and the team in the shop take on a tough challenge, remaking the dented '91 Ford Festiva belonging to Vanessa, an enthusiastic young woman who uses her car to deliver pizzas, sell knee pads and store a lot of personal junk.
The guys repaint it black with flickering flames, replace the seats and the dash, soup up the engine and install an entertainment system that takes over the entire trunk area and includes a PlayStation, which can be operated only when the car is parked and the hatchback open.
My reaction is why not spend the money on a nice new Ford with more trunk space for pizzas and knee pads, but I recognize that is beside the point. What isn't beside the point is that the show is badly scripted and poorly performed. Xzibit is a natural, but the automotive guys in the cast never deviate from a painfully forced tone of cheery machismo whether they are stiltedly delivering scripted lines or attempting, and failing, to be themselves in front of the camera. If somebody says "check it out!" one more time, I think I am going to be carsick. Kate Taylor
John Doyle returns later this month.