Posted by: David Kiley on August 23, 2005
Time-Warner’s Cartoon Network is launching a two-hour block of programming aimed at 2-5 year olds, and the advocates decrying advertising aimed at little kids are up in arms. As the father of a three-and-a-half year old, I can’t blame them. But neither can I blame TW for wanting to cash in on an obvious market.
During the course of a day, parents, especially those with one child, need a break and inevitably (unless these parents are saints) end up sitting a child as young as two, for some period of time, in front of a DVD or VHS tape and the TV. Maybe its Baby Einstein. Perhaps Teletubbies. Clifford The Big Red Dog. Or the favorite in our house—Thomas The Tank Engine. Clothes have to get washed. Meals have to be cooked. E-mail must be checked. And the sanity, especially of Henry’s Mother, surely must be preserved.
Henry has also been a watcher of Noggin and PBS Kids. And he is surely exposed to commercial messages. We joke (though it’s not so funny) that Henry has a future as a Don Pardo-like network announcer. That’s because he is fond of parroting the commercial sponsor messages back to us with perfect articulation. I am well aware, for example, that Clifford The Big Red Dog is underwritten by Lipton Soup. Henry enthusiastically points to the Lipton display in the grocery store and proclaims, “Look Daddy. A logo.”
Parents who want to check their e-mail, read an occasional magazine or bake a batch of muffins, use the electronic baby sitter. By definition, that turns their toddlers into consumers of media. While the hours of such media exposure is disturbing, according to the latest studies, an increasing amount of TV viewing is “on demand” and commercial free. DVDs, VHS tapes, and the increasing amount of programming for kids on a cable system’s on-demand menu is taking a bigger share of kid’s TV viewing. TW is simply trying to stay in the game with programming aimed at this group. Parents still have a weapon, of course. It’s the DVD collection. My son hasn’t ever watched the Cartoon Network. He does watch Peter In The Wolf, Beatrix Potter and Thomas on a regular basis. Just how many times can a kid watch Peter and the Wolf before he says, “Enough Already!”? This is my question. The great worry, of course, is that kids of lower income families, with access to fewer commercial free on-demand choices, will soak up the greatest amount of commercial-filled programming.
Harvard psychiatrist Susan Linn publicly attacked TW’s new two-our TickleU the move as a marketing ploy aimed at getting tots in front of screens for more hours a day. Ms. Linn is the author of Remote Control Childhood.
I am regularly stunned at how much “advertising-speak” my son knows from the sponsorship messages he hears on his programming. Since the same wording is used every time, it’s easy for him to rememember it. He knows the Lipton and Chuck E Cheese sponsorship riffs it as well as he knows the words in “Cat in the Hat” and his Beatrix Potter stories like The tale of Samuel Whiskers. And lately, I have been taken aback by how deft he is at using the computer mouse already to navigate the activities on noggin.com and pbskids.com. I have to get that child-guard up on the computer in case he starts figuring out how to google.
I respect Ms. Linn and her work. But let’s not forget that parents are still in charge of what a 2-5 year old watches, as long as they choose to stay in charge. And beyond five years old, we will still be in charge. We aren’t abdicating that responsibility until Henry is a lot older. And while he clearly is developing an early awareness of the Lipton soup brand, we will be spending time, when he is old enough to grasp it, that his Mother’s home-made soup is much better than anything the chemists at Lipton can come up with.
It’s all part of the conversation of parenting and child rearing—parent to child, and child to parent. And I never tire of having it with my son. And the media, and thus advertising, is always going to be a part of it.